Newly installed in the Genoscope laboratories in Évry (France), Janaina Rigonato was selected from among dozens of scientists to participate, for 2 years, in the “Ocean Plankton, Climate & Development” project initiated by the Tara Expeditions Foundation and financed by the French Facility for Global Environment (FFEM). Started in July 2016, the project gives researchers from emerging and developing countries the opportunity to learn new skills and acquire experience in state-of-the-art laboratories. They work on analyzing the massive plankton data base collected during the Tara Oceans expedition (2009-2013). Janaina focuses on plankton present in deoxygenated areas threatening to spread and asphyxiate the oceans.
The latest issue of the Tara journal is displayed in the Genoscope entrance hall, behind a plastic window. “Researchers studying the data from Tara work in close collaboration here,” says Janaina Rigonato with a smile. The 38-year old Brazilian geneticist has just moved to Évry (near Paris) with an ambitious mission: continue to unravel the mysteries of oceanic plankton in this laboratory originally specialized in human gene analysis, and now studying environmental genetics as well.
I’ve just received a gigantic dataset.
« So far, so good »
When she arrived mid-June 2017, she remembers thinking: “I’m in heaven!” In her home laboratory in São Paulo, instruments are as efficient as the ones here, but much less numerous. “I’ve just received a gigantic dataset,” she says with a laugh. Genetic sequences, environmental data, details on sampling areas and techniques, etc. It’s now up to her to make these data “speak” thanks to powerful analytical tools.
So far, she has been reading everything she can find on her new research topic: plankton in deoxygenated areas of the ocean. These waters, characterized by a very low dioxygen concentration, are present everywhere and some expand due to climate change, thus raising concern among the scientific community. Marine animals such as fish need oxygen to develop and can’t survive in such an environment. One of the consequences is therefore a narrowing of their habitat.
“I compare the content of my samples with data already recorded in public databases, accessible to all scientists. If nothing matches, I know it’s new”. Based on genetic sequence analysis of organisms ranging from phytoplankton to small zooplankton, Janaina Rigonato will provide information on several questions: what species are present in these deoxygenated areas, what are their functions and how do they adapt to these specific living conditions?
Combining genetics, microbiology and oceanography
Sitting on the Genoscope terrace, under the afternoon sun, Janaina Rigonato retraces her scientific career: from her interest in genetics starting in high school to her field trips in Brazilian mangroves where she studied their resilience following a devastating oil spill. “Once I got stuck in mud and my team had to throw me a rope to tie around my waist to rescue me”, she says amused, mimicking the scene. Within the research team, the geneticist was interested in the particularly abundant and crucial cyanobacteria, able to carry out photosynthesis. By comparing polluted and pristine areas along the Brazilian coast, she was able to characterize the oil spill’s impact on these micro-organisms and highlight irreversible changes.
To me, starting a research project with Tara’s data is like a kid going from a small playground to Disneyland Paris!
For a long time, Janaina Rigonato dreamed of applying her expertise in microbiology and genetics to oceanography. She now has an opportunity to do so by starting this research project at the Genoscope and joining the Tara Oceans scientific consortium. “In Brazil, there’s a shortage of researchers working with marine microorganisms” she says. She also deplores the lack of regional cooperation in this field. When returning home, she intends to increase the ranks of this scientific community because her country strongly depends on the good health of its 7,500 kilometers of coastline.
As a scientist who loves being out in the field, her only regret is not having collected the data she’s about to analyze. “It’s the first time I deal with samples collected by someone else. In some ways, it’s a bit frustrating,” she admits. However, she acknowledges that the prospect of major breakthroughs resulting from the analysis of these unpublished data is a sufficient consolation prize.
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