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OCEANOMICS is a fundamental and applied research project, winner of the French government’s program “Investments for the Future” in the Biotechnology and Bioresources  section. Colomban de Vargas is coordinator of OCEANOMICS.
How did the OCEANOMICS project come to be?

The project is closely linked to the Tara Oceans Expedition (2009-2012) on both a scientific and human level. Among the academic partners of OCEANOMICS are the researchers who conceived and actively participated in the expedition – the most extensive sampling of plankton ever made. The Tara Oceans expedition, along with the recent Tara Oceans Polar Circle (2013), allowed us to collect tens of thousands of samples as well as biological, chemical and physical measurements systematically recorded throughout the world’s oceans. OCEANOMICS has been designed as one of the scientific followups to these expeditions, in order to organize the samples and study them in depth.

What is the purpose of the OCEANOMICS project and what kinds of applications can it have?

The project aims to understand the biocomplexity and biotechnological potential of oceanic plankton – the most extensive ecosystem of our planet. Planktonic marine ecosystems represent more than 98% of the volume of our biosphere, and the maritime surface of France is 20 times greater than its land area. Studied very little, these ecosystems contain 10 to 100 billion organisms per liter of seawater – a huge resource containing unknown life forms and unexplored bioactive compounds. Since the start of the project, OCEANOMICS has been exploring this unique collection by methods of DNA sequencing and high-speed imaging, to identify the planktonic organisms, their genes and genome, and how genes are expressed in relation to environmental parameters. This in-depth knowledge of plankton’s functional biodiversity on a global scale will then be used for more focused studies of the bioactive compounds found in plankton – particularly promising in fields of application such as  pharmaceuticals or cosmetics.

Eventually, the knowledge generated by OCEANOMICS should provide practical applications in three areas:

(1 ) Biotechnology: the original methods developed in the project, particularly in terms of DNA sequencing and automated high-throughput imaging, can be used in studies monitoring aquatic environments, with a huge number of potential applications including water-quality at seaside resorts, consumer products from the sea, microbiological pollution, ballast water, etc.

(2) Bioresources: activities of purification and screening of active principles derived from predefined planktonic strains will help identify new compounds for the pharmaceutical and cosmetic industries. Several new drugs have been developed from recent exploration of coastal marine ecosystems, but plankton remains largely unexplored and therefore there is tremendous potential for extending this list.

(3) Legislation: OCEANOMICS will serve as a case study to define an appropriate legal model for bioprospection of marine plankton – a realm whose potential value has not yet been recognized and is often situated beyond national borders, at the limit of current regulatory frameworks.

How is the project progressing?

OCEANOMICS was launched a little more than a year ago, in March 2013.

This first year of work has been very productive in terms of exploration of genetic, morphological and environmental data from the Tara Oceans expeditions.

– The physico-chemical parameters measured throughout the expedition (>50) were checked for quality, analyzed and archived in order to be exploited and connected with the biological data.

– The imaging data generated aboard Tara or in the laboratory has been largely analyzed. A new automated confocal fluorescent imaging technology has been implemented, and has enabled the imaging and 3D modeling of thousands of key microscopic plankton from around the world. A tool for online sharing of this complex new data is being developed, and should allow for taxonomic identification and annotation of these images by international experts.

– Thanks to techniques of massive DNA sequencing performed at the Genoscope, we generated two sets of genetic data vital for our knowledge of plankton: (1) a collection of more than 1 billion  ribosomal DNA sequences extracted from all eukaryotic samples from Tara Oceans, representing over 1,000 planktonic communities; (2) a collection of > 100 million bacterial genes from all Tara Oceans sampling stations, >50% of which are completely new to researchers. The first scientific papers presenting new and very complex data will be submitted this summer, and should be published before the end of the year.

– But the ultimate interest OCEANOMICS is to link together all this data. We are currently setting up a multi-site database, which will become an essential tool for the community of researchers working on plankton.

Are the first applications ready to emerge ?

OCEANOMICS is still in the fundamental research phase, which will in fact continue throughout the project. The applied research part, in collaboration with partners from the private sector, should start in 2015. Discovery of molecules that could benefit society is a long process, but elaboration of the strategy to be adopted by our partners started at the very beginning of the project and is now set. Given the extraordinary abundance of new planktonic species and genes, shown by our initial results, we are optimistic about the ability of plankton to offer new societal and economic perspectives before the end of the project in 2020 and beyond.

OCEANOMICS includes 10 academic partners from laboratories of the CNRS, UPMC, Genoscope/ CEA, ENS, and EMBL;  6 private partners (TARA Foundation, Altran, Veolia, Leica, Greentech, Soliance); and close links with several non-funded partners who wish to collaborate.

Learn more about the OCEANOMICS project