© 2023 WFAE
90.7 Charlotte 93.7 Southern Pines 90.3 Hickory 106.1 Laurinburg
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Scientists Test The World's Seas On Ocean Sampling Day


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Later this month, scientists are gathering in Stockholm for World Water Week. That doesn't mean belly flop contest or waterslides. Instead, scientists will examine key issues facing the world's water supplies. Earlier this Summer, marine scientists across the globe took part in the first of its kind synchronized research project called Ocean Sampling Day. Georgia Public Broadcasting Sarah McCammon reports.

SARACH MCCAMMON, BYLINE: On a muggy Summer afternoon along the Georgia coast, Kevin McKenzie squats on a wooden dock, lowering a collection bottle exactly one meter into the water.

KEVIN MCKENZIE: Try not to splash it too much.

MCCAMMON: He hoisted back up and pours the water into a large container.

MCKENZIE: Today, we are collecting 60 liters.

MCCAMMON: McKenzie is with the University of Georgia's Skidaway Institute of Oceanography here in Savannah. He's among the marine scientists from Iceland to Indonesia who collected ocean microbes on one particular day, June 21 - the summer solstice.

MCKENZIE: You have to study microbes. They have to be studied.

MCCAMMON: At the Skidaway lab, research technician Tina Walters explains the importance of microbes like bacteria, viruses and fungi. Some microbes form the basis of a food chain. Others help purify the ocean by breaking down pollutants like oil spills.

MCKENZIE: We're just running the water through the filter and whatever's collecting on the filter will be set off for sequencing.

MCCAMMON: DNA sequencing - research can do it faster and more cheaply than ever before. And that's making large-scale projects, like Ocean Sampling Day, possible. Frank Glockner is leading the project which is funded by the European Union. He's a marine researcher at Jacobs University in Bremen, Germany. Speaking via Skype, he says he hoped that 20 or 30 research stations might participate.

FRANK GLOCKNER: More and more stations came in, and we ended up with 185. So this was totally unexpected, to be honest.

MCCAMMON: Glockner says the point of bringing together researchers from around the world on a single day is to eliminate one big variable in ocean research - time.

GLOCKNER: It is now time that we have a snapshot of a single day - going out on the same day, taking samples under standardized protocol.

EILEEN BRESNAN: That's a tremendous advantage because the variation in individual labs doing this by themselves sometimes make comparisons more difficult.

MCCAMMON: That's Eileen Bresnan with Marine Scotland Science, a government research institute on Scotland's northeast coast. She says she's not aware of another synchronized effort like this. Brenan says samples taken on a single day are valuable because marine microbes have short life cycles. You might find lots of one particular kind of microbe on a given day, but...

BRESNAN: It might not be there when you come back a week later or a different species could be dominating.

MCCAMMON: Some scientists caution there are limits to this worldwide sampling. John Paul is a marine scientist at the University of South Florida, and he's not part of the project. Paul says one day of sampling is a tiny drop in a very large bucket. But he acknowledges the benefits of casting such a wide net.

JOHN PAUL: Well, I'm sure something unusual is going to be found. I mean, there may be a discovery that clearly was not intended or fortuitous.

MCCAMMON: And to increase the chance of finding something fortuitous, organizers say they hope to plan a more ocean sampling days. They'll make the initial results public early next year. For NPR News, I'm Sarah McCammon in Savannah, Georgia. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sarah McCammon worked for Iowa Public Radio as Morning Edition Host from January 2010 until December 2013.