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Largest-ever ocean DNA study uncovers mysteries of marine life

The ocean, Earth’s largest habitat, remains largely unexplored, holding secrets to numerous unidentified species and microorganisms. Recent advancements in ocean DNA research have brought us closer to uncovering these mysteries.

The latest landmark in this journey is the creation of the KMAP Global Ocean Gene Catalog 1.0, a comprehensive database of marine microbial biodiversity.

Amazing achievement in marine science

Elisa Laiolo of the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) in Saudi Arabia, the lead author of the study, shares her excitement.

“With over 317 million gene groups from marine organisms globally, the KMAP catalog represents a significant step towards understanding the ocean’s full diversity. Focusing on marine microbes, this catalog is pivotal for comprehending their influence on ocean health and Earth’s climate,” Laiolo said.

This catalog is a gateway to endless possibilities. Prof Carlos Duarte, KAUST faculty member and the study’s senior author, elaborates on its potential.

“Hosted on the KAUST Metagenomic Analysis Platform (KMAP), this freely accessible catalog enables scientists to explore diverse ocean ecosystems, assess the effects of pollution and global warming, and even discover biotechnological applications like new antibiotics or methods to degrade plastics.”

Challenges in ocean DNA mapping

The quest to map marine biodiversity is centuries old, fraught with challenges, primarily due to the inability to study most marine organisms in a lab setting.

The advent of DNA sequencing technologies revolutionized this field, allowing for direct identification of organisms from ocean water and sediments.

Laiolo simplifies the process, saying, “Each species has a unique gene set, enabling us to determine the organisms present in an ocean sample by analyzing its genetic material.”

She credits two technological advancements for this large-scale achievement: the rapid development and reduced cost of DNA sequencing technologies, and the emergence of powerful computational and AI technologies.

KMAP ocean gene catalog

The research team utilized KMAP to analyze DNA sequences from 2,102 ocean samples collected worldwide.

This cutting-edge computational effort identified 317.5 million gene groups, with over half classified by organism type and gene function.

By correlating this information with sample locations and habitat types, the catalog offers unprecedented insights into the distribution and roles of marine microbes.

“This achievement underscores the essence of open science,” Duarte remarks. The catalog’s creation was possible due to global sailing expeditions for sample collection and the open-access sharing of DNA data. He emphasizes the ongoing collaborative efforts to keep this catalog freely available.

Impact and future of KMAP

The KMAP catalog has already uncovered significant findings, like differences in microbial activity between the water column and ocean floor, and a notable presence of fungi in the mesopelagic ‘twilight’ zone.

These discoveries aid in understanding how different habitats’ microbes shape ecosystems, contribute to ocean health, and affect the climate.

This catalog also serves as a crucial baseline for monitoring the impact of human activities, like pollution and global warming, on marine life. It’s a treasure trove of genetic material, ripe for exploration in drug development, energy, and agriculture.

Laiolo highlights the need for continued ocean sampling, especially in under-studied areas like the deep sea. She points out that due to the ocean’s dynamic nature, the catalog will require regular updates.

However, Duarte warns of the catalog’s uncertain future, citing international legislation on benefit-sharing from discoveries in international waters as a major hurdle.

“The 2023 Treaty of the High Seas offers some solutions, but it might also hinder research by diminishing investment incentives. Resolving this uncertainty is crucial now that we have the tools for groundbreaking innovation in blue biotechnology,” he concludes.

Building a global ocean genome atlas

The KMAP Ocean Gene Catalog 1.0 is just the beginning. It’s a first step towards developing a comprehensive atlas documenting every gene from every marine species worldwide, from bacteria and fungi to plants and animals.

In summary, as we continue to explore and understand the vast and complex ocean ecosystem, this catalog will be an indispensable resource, guiding us towards a deeper appreciation and better stewardship of our planet’s greatest natural resource.

The full study was published in the journal Frontiers in Science.


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