What is the bottom of the food chain? Small life that is formed in the ocean, the microorganisms. Scientists have completed a census for them.
Like Charles Darwin and other naturalists of the 18th and 19th century, today’s explorers also spent years sailing around the world to accomplish this exploit. They named their expedition Tara, after the term of the 110-foot schooner on which they held out for three years.
The scientists identified more than 35,000 different forms of organisms. Their study was printed in the journal Science. Marcia McNutt, the Journal editor says it’s time the world took notice of what we can’t visualize in the sea.
“How can we save the whales if we can’t save the krill?” she says. “There’s something about the tragedy of the commons here.”
The Tara expedition was aimed to measure what’s out there and how it might be affected by a changing ocean. Since, oceans are dumping grounds for the world’s garbage. The Climate change makes them warmer and more acidic.
For that, the scientists drained off ocean water and identify the organisms in the water though the use of DNA probes. That also enabled them to understand how those organisms behave: eat, reproduce, interact.
Team scientist Eric Karsenti, from the European Molecular Biology Laboratory, says he was surprised by how much these tiny organisms interact with each other, often in symbiotic relationships.
“It’s not only survival of the fittest,” he says, “but it’s also how everybody collaborates with everybody else that makes life evolve.”
They also caught up organisms in big eddies, like whirlpools, its communities. These eddies carry these little living eco-systems with them across the oceans. The microorganisms is also sensitive to temperature changes. And in fact, the oceans already are warming due to climate change.
Steve Palumbi, a marine biologist at Stanford University, says all this is a good reason to pay more attention to these microbes.
“Anything that goes on in that region of life, that bottom layer, these tiny things makes a big difference to how the planet functions,” he says.
Not only are they food for so much of what lives in the ocean, but they add huge amounts of oxygen to the atmosphere. “Anywhere between 1 in 4 and 1 in 2 breaths we take comes out of the ocean,” says Palumbi. And that’s mostly coming from these tiny little microbes.
Palumbi says this scientific bite in the oceanic apple will take years for scientists to digest. He noted that the Tara scientists have made the unusual gesture of giving anyone in the world access to their data — in the hope that many hands will make quick work of it.