Saving our Oceans with Science


Living in a coastal community, the beauty and many benefits of the ocean are a part of our daily lives. Although our oceans have proven resilient to many threats, their ability to bounce back cannot be taken for granted. Increasing temperatures, pollution from innumerable sources and overfishing are a global problem with massive implications, and we should be unified in protecting our oceans.

The J. Craig Venter Institute has a long history of pioneering genomic research, including a significant and sustained commitment to global marine ecosystems. Today, JCVI scientists are working urgently on several projects to understand the mechanisms of ocean resilience and develop novel methods to help ensure a healthy and sustainable ocean for all.

One project focuses on the effect of rising global ocean temperatures on coral reefs. More than 30% of the remaining global coral population are at risk. JCVI scientists and collaborators recently developed and tested a new probiotic to act as a proactive therapeutic. Treated corals showed an increased survival rate of 40% when faced with the stresses of increased water temperatures. This research starts to elucidate how certain microbial organisms can protect corals by regulating the host response. More research is crucial to maximize the potential of these probiotics.

Another project is studying the growing abundance of plastics in our oceans. It is estimated that about 150 million tons of plastic is currently in the ocean today. Most of it is nonbiodegradable and over time is fragmented into microplastics that eventually enter our food chain. Through surface water sampling, JCVI scientists have observed microbial communities colonizing these plastics and, in some cases, degrading them. Soon, a JCVI scientist will conduct further research on Alvin, a manned deep ocean research submersible that will go as far as 4 miles down to collect microplastic samples on the ocean floor since that is where nearly 99% of plastics end up. This research is also identifying novel plastic degradation pathways and enzymes that are more efficient at breaking down plastics in the hope that these genes and gene pathways can be harnessed to help tackle this growing environmental problem.

Nearly 2.4 billion people live within 60 miles of the coast, yet we know surprisingly little about the unseen but crucial life in the ocean. Unfortunately, not much is known about costal microbial dynamics and how resilient these important ecological systems are to disturbances, such as the influx of non-native viruses or other environmental phenomena. One proposed study by JCVI scientists is to conduct water sampling multiple times daily to see how these critical ecosystems are responding before increasingly unpredictable weather patterns worsen and further disrupt them.

Why is scientific research on ocean conservation so important? From a practical perspective, we rely on the ocean for sustenance, industry, entertainment and most importantly for the one thing we cannot live without, oxygen. There is an undeniable interdependency of ocean resilience to human resilience, one that JCVI scientists have long understood and are steadfast in their commitment to protect.

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Kamran Saeed