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Arctic Ocean found to be a biological "treasure trove"

A new project will identify unique species and assess their extinction risk. This work aims to help benchmark biodiversity change in the Arctic Ocean and guide conservation efforts.

Arctic ecosystems are among the most impacted by global warming. The Arctic Ocean is an indicator of climate change consequences, yet it remains one of the most poorly understood environments. 

An international team of scientists developed an EcoOmics dataset that reveals a year in the biological life of the central Arctic Ocean with emphasis on microbiomes, communities of micro-organisms living together in a habitat. This dataset aims to support the shortage of antibiotics and antiviral medication, and reveal novel biology that could influence our understanding of the evolution of life on Earth.   

The team includes researchers from the German Helmholtz Association, the German Research Foundation (DFG), the Joint Genome Institute (JGI, USA) and Earlham Institute (UK), as well as several other institutions.

Data samples will be used from the largest polar expedition in history, the study of Arctic Climate (MOSAiC) program. Hundreds of scientists coordinated marine, atmospheric, and sea-ice research to improve our understanding of the Arctic Ocean’s role in climate processes. This will help understand how sea ice and other organisms will sustain Arctic marine ecosystem services under climate change.

Marine microbes play pivotal roles in climate feedback and in sustaining food webs. They are central for conservation and ecosystem services. Microbes also serve as biological indicators due to their fast response to environmental change.  

“This is the first and largest effort to sequence the central Arctic Ocean through space and time,” said Professor Thomas Mock of the University of East Anglia. “MOSAiC gives us an important glimpse into the future of Arctic ecosystems beyond 2050, when the Arctic Ocean is predicted to be ice-free during summer. This integrative scientific approach is unprecedented for polar oceans, but it is needed to improve our projections of interacting species’ responses to climate change in the Arctic.”

The initial results provide the first evidence in the Arctic Ocean of habitat filtering – the process by which habitat characteristics select for species adapted to them. The team has also found that the central Arctic Ocean is a biological “treasure trove” which has evolved in order to thrive in the harsh environment.

“EcoOmics will contribute to conservation efforts and extend fundamental questions in biology including the evolution of life on planet Earth, which remains incomplete unless polar organisms are considered.” said Professor Mock.

“Those organisms are likely a treasure trove for discovering novel biology because of their unique adaptation. How our understanding of global biodiversity will be influenced by novel polar biology remains to be seen, but our preliminary insights hold great promise.”  

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By Katherine Bucko, Staff Writer

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