Wednesday, 10 September 2014

Crowdsourcing Microbial Oceanography

For marine microbiologists getting out into the blue ocean is a big deal. Competition for ship time is fierce and we often propose and plan research voyages years in advance. Even with access to dedicated research vessels the ocean is enormous, and vast swaths of the ocean are rarely visited by scientists and therefore poorly sampled.

To attempt to address this problem I set off on a expedition onboard an 18m sailing yacht in April last year to help prove the concept that citizen scientists onboard sailing vessels can fill the gaps in oceanographic data collection. Together with Federico Lauro, Joe Grzymski and Rachelle Lauro we set off from Cape Town into the Indian Ocean on our way to Mauritius.

The first leg of the Indigo V voyage was far from plain sailing. We encountered foul weather, gear failures, lack of sleep, sea sickness and survived the ravages of a fierce gale and cruel waves 1000s of kilometres from land. Fighting to stay on course, stay onboard and remain afloat were our main priorities. However, we also managed to take measurements and preserve samples for microbial oceanography using relatively simple low cost equipment. We survived and proved that CITIZEN SCIENCE IS POSSIBLE.

The lessons we learned form this expedition form the basis of our community page headlining this weeks PLOS Biology.**

Joe Grzymski strapped-in and doing science out in the Southern Indian Ocean.

The timing of this article coincides with the arrival of Australia's new research vessel. These are exciting times for microbiologists in Australia, particularly for biological oceanographers who have been anxiously waiting the RV Investigator which has been delayed for a year. Investigator was built in Singapore and arrived yesterday in her home port of Hobart where she will be fitted out with some impressive scientific kit.

This newspaper article provides some background and interesting numbers. For example, Investigator will be able to accommodate up to 40 scientists and students on voyages from the equator to the Antarctic ice edge for up to 300 days per year. Scientists requested over 800 days of research project time on board for the first year of operation, but the vessel will be funded for only 180 days at the moment.

If you are a student and have an interest in exploring the blue ocean and the organisms that thrive within it then you should get in contact with our research group here at Macquarie University. We have a number of exciting PhD studentships opening early next year for work on metabolic modelling and genomics of marine microorganisms.

**(This is actually the second paper produced from this project, the first was a review of the links between biogeography and traits of marine microbes, that we mostly wrote while prepping the Indigo V for the first leg in Cape Town.)

Ready to set off across the blue Indian Ocean. A picture of our sailing vessel, Indigo V, tied up alongside squid boats in Port Elizabeth, South Africa. 

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