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Tara Oceans Expedition unveils scientific results


The Tara Oceans consortium just published five scientific papers in the journal Science revealing the initial wave of scientific results from the first six years of the project.1-5 The findings show the extraordinary diversity of plankton in the world’s oceans, uncover many of the interactions between these organisms, and reveal how plankton impact and are influenced by the environment. This publication is accompanied by two editorials by Eric Karsenti and colleagues in EMBO’s journal Molecular Systems Biology that describe the history of the project and reveal some of the challenges of translating such a vast amount of data into knowledge.6,7


The special issue of Science devoted to Tara Oceans includes five publications that unveil the vast amount of scientific data arising from a project that grasped the attention and imagination of both the scientists and the public. The sequencing of almost a billion genetic barcodes, short genetic sequences that help identify organisms, have revealed more than 150 000 new genetic taxa of plankton, a number that far surpasses previous expectations. The scientists also determined the “interactome” of the plankton living in the world’s oceans – the more or less complete set of interactions between bacteria, viruses and planktonic eukaryotes. 


Two papers revealed the global patterns and ecological drivers of oceans’ planktonic communities as well as an oceanic “cold wash cycle” that appears to limit the number of species that manage to cross from the Indian Ocean into the South Atlantic. Temperature seems to be a crucial factor in influencing the distribution of plankton in the different parts of the world’s oceans.


The high prevalence of parasites within this ecosystem was one of the significant findings of this hidden world. For the first time, scientists now have a picture of the structure and function of much of the global ocean microbiome, which may have implications for the study of climate change. 


“The Tara Oceans project emerged from an early romantic idea I had in 2000: organizing a sailing expedition in the wake of Darwin’s voyage aboard the Beagle to popularize biology,” said Eric Karsenti, Director of the Tara Oceans project and Senior Group Leader at EMBL, in his editorial in Molecular Systems Biology. “Fifteen years after what was initially a wild dream, a treasure trove of incredibly exciting data is revealed to the scientific community.”


No formal funding mechanism


Although the project is delivering results, securing funding has been a considerable challenge. The transformation of Karsenti’s initial idea into the large-scale Tara Oceans project was only made possible thanks to funders willing to take the risk of backing a self-organized community of researchers. “We had no success with finding funding from conventional sources including the European Commission. Our initiative was deemed outside the usual boundaries of funded scientific research,” says Karsenti.  The interdisciplinary nature of the project proved to be a serious barrier to many sources of funding. First, if the project did make it to a stage where it was considered for funding, it was difficult to find reviewers with a suitable set of expertise and understanding of large-scale projects of this type. Second, despite a broad consensus that interdisciplinarity is needed for innovation and discovery, there is an acute shortage of efficient mechanisms to fund such projects.


The scientists involved in the project eventually found the solution to the funding gap. They were able to build a consortium of financial support through their own institutions and also received funding from private companies and organizations including Agnès b and Fondation Veolia. Financial support for the data analysis part of the project was eventually secured from the French “Investissements d’avenir” funding programme.  


Overall, Tara Oceans sampled plankton at more than 210 sites and at multiple layers of depth in all the major oceanic regions. The scientific sampling followed protocols developed to capture the entire morphogenetic complexity of the plankton community across several orders of size (from 0.02 µm to a few mm), together with an extensive range of physicochemical parameters. Sampling typically lasted 60 hours per station. The 35,000 samples collected form the basis for extensive processing and data integration on land.


The research articles in Science describe the first foundational resources from the project (based on a first data “freeze” from 579 samples at 75 stations) and their initial analyses, illustrating several aspects of the Tara Oceans’ ecosystems biology approach. The project provides unique resources for several scientific disciplines. According to EMBO Member Peer Bork, Scientific Coordinator of Tara Oceans and Senior Scientist at EMBL: “the rich publicly available resources are likely to stimulate a wealth of research in laboratories way beyond the Tara Oceans consortium.”


The project has clearly delivered results that far exceed expectations. “No one could have predicted the wealth of information that we would uncover when we took the first few nautical miles of our journey,” says EMBO Member Chris Bowler, Scientific Coordinator of Tara Oceans, working at the Institut de Biologie de l’Ecole Normale Supérieure in Paris. “We hope that what we have achieved may also serve as a model for other large-scale projects in the future.”


  1. Sunagawa et al. (2015) Science 348: 1261359.
  2. Villar et al. (2015) Science 348: 1261447.
  3. Brum et al. (2015) Science 348: 1261498.
  4. de Vargas et al. (2015) Science 348: 1261605.
  5. Lima-Mendez et al. (2015) Science 348: 1262073.
  6. Karsenti (2015) Molecular Systems Biology 11: 811.
  7. Sunagawa et al. (2015) Molecular Systems Biology 11: 809.