Ecology & Evolution

Systems ecology: Biology on the high seas

How Eric Karsenti’s quest to understand the cell launched a trip around the world

Nature, 4th September 2013

Eric Karsenti set sail aboard the schooner Tara on an epic voyage to survey the oceans’ ecosystems (© F.Latreille-Tara Expéditions)

It is 3 a.m. in mid-December 2010, an hour before dawn, and Tara is anchored amid an angry swell near the entrance to the Strait of Magellan. In the lee of Argentina’s cliffs, the 36-metre schooner and her crew have sought haven against the impending weather that has earned these latitudes the nickname the Furious Fifties. But as the winds gather to hurricane force, they snap the safety cord that eases tension on the anchor chain. As the crew struggles to replace it, the storm crescendoes, plucking Tara‘s anchor from the seabed twice before it can be secured again.

Bracing himself inside the aluminium hull is Eric Karsenti. Compact and bright-eyed beneath a bushy mop of white hair, he has the air of a seasoned seafarer. But he is also an accomplished molecular cell biologist who has spent most of his career studying microtubules — rod-like structures that form part of the cell’s internal scaffolding. Approaching retirement, he has switched fields, borrowed a famous fashion designer’s yacht and launched a 2.5-year expedition around the world to survey ocean ecosystems in unprecedented breadth and detail. Motivated by a love of adventure as much as by science, Karsenti has found his share of both…

Global ocean trawl reveals plethora of new lifeforms

Three-year Tara Oceans project publishes first analyses of rich diversity of planktonic life.

Nature, 21st May 2015

A team of researchers who spent three and a half years on a schooner fishing for microscopic creatures in the world’s oceans have reported the initial results of their survey — revealing a rich, diverse array of planktonic life.

Mediterranean plankton (©Christian Sardet)
Mediterranean plankton (©Christian Sardet)

Part scientific expedition, part adventure and part public-outreach effort, the project took place aboard the 36-metre Tara, which set sail from Lorient, France, in September 2009. Scientists onboard collected some 35,000 samples at 210 stations over the voyage, in a bid to build up a holistic view of Earth’s upper oceans.

The haul, details of which are analysed in five papers published today in the journal Science, includes a catalogue of more than 40 million microbial genes — most of which were not previously known — as well as some 5,000 genetic types of virus, and an estimated 150,000 kinds of eukaryote (complex cells), many more than the 11,000 types of marine eukaryotic plankton already known…