Ready, Set, Sample!

MBL, Woods Hole, MA. Image (c) Kathiann M. Kowalski.

MBL, Woods Hole, MA.  Image (c) Kathiann M. Kowalski.


Heading to the beach on a Saturday isn’t that unusual. After all, it’s summer. But having scientists head to beaches around the world on the same day is indeed something unusual.

Last Saturday, marine scientists collected seawater samples from more than 170 locations from Iceland to Antarctica. It’s all part of Ocean Sampling Day.

The sampling snapshots will provide important baseline knowledge about microorganisms in the world’s oceans. Jacobs University in Germany and the University of Oxford in the United Kingdome coordinate the effort, which was launched by the Micro B3 Project. Micro B3 stands for “Marine Microbial Biodiversity, Bioinformatics, Biotechnology.”

Scientists at each place collected five or six liters of seawater around midday local time. Yet while the sampling is now done, the scientists’ work has just started.

“If you sample from the environment, you’re going to have all kinds of things in that water,” notes Will Melvin. Melvin is a visiting scientist at MBL’s Josephine Bay Paul Center. He took samples near the squid gate at MBL in Woods Hole, Massachusetts.

After scientists collect the samples, fine filters strain out the biological material. That material then goes into a solution. The solution breaks open the cell walls, which lets scientists get to DNA and other material inside.

The solution also makes it easier to freeze material for future research projects. “A lot of that study will focus on bacteria,” notes Melvin.

Such studies will expand basic scientific knowledge about cell functions. It can also let scientists study particular types of bacteria.

Beyond that, scientists are interested in the overall profile of the oceans’ microbial communities. They want to know what it looks like know. And they want to see how it will change over time. After all, what looks like “just” a bottle of seawater holds clues to the health of the whole planet.

“Microbes are the most numerous inhabitants in the ocean, and it is important to the biosphere and the health of our planet that they continue to deliver the ecosystem services that they provide, including half of the oxygen we breathe,” notes Linda Amaral Zettler, also at MBL’s Josephine Bay Paul Center. She helped coordinate sample collections at the Atlantic Ocean’s Azorean Islands.

Tracking changes in microbial populations “may provide clues to ocean health and ultimately the health of the planet,” Amaral Zettler adds.

And, of course, a day at the beach beats at day in the office any time!



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