A team of Spanish researchers, coordinated by the Spanish
National Research Council (CSIC), has started to sequence the genome of the
global deep ocean. They are using more than 2 000 samples of microorganisms
collected in the Atlantic, Indian and Pacific Oceans during the Malaspina
This collection of marine microbial genomic, the first in
the world on a global scale, will provide new clues about a reservoir of
biodiversity yet to explore, considering that it could imply the discovery of
tens of millions of new genes in the coming years.
The works of sequencing (framed in the Malaspinomics
project) focus on the viruses, bacteria and protists that inhabit the ocean to
4 000 meters deep. Most of the biomass of marine organisms is composed of
microorganism. Of these, a 72% inhabit the dark ocean, from 200 meters deep.
However, so far, the DNA or RNA sequencing had been almost exclusively limited
to the ocean surface waters.
Malaspinomics preliminary results reveal a wealth of unknown
species of microorganisms in the deep ocean, characterized by an intense
biological activity. Specifically, 60% of the bacterial species of the deep
ocean detected by massive sequencing techniques are unknown.
What they’ve found so
Carlos Duarte, CSIC researcher and coordinator of Malaspina
Expedition, asserts: "Malaspinomics means a leap forward because, for the
first time, we are analysing samples from the deep ocean, covering the great
oceans. The new protocols of sequencing and analysis allow us to extract quite
more information than in previous studies, which were limited to specific
regions or surface waters, to an unprecedented level of resolution".
Researchers have already detected some bacteria which are
capable of degrading highly toxic compounds that have gradually gathered in the
seabed. Silvia Acinas, CSIC researcher at the Institute of Marine Sciences
(ICM-CSIC), states: "We have found bacteria with metabolic pathways that
are capable of degrading methylmercury derived from human activity. Other
bacteria, the methanotrophs, use the degradation products of these toxic
compounds as a carbon and energy source. The detection of these recycling
plants in the deep ocean allows us to identify those regions with the greatest
accumulation of toxic substances and to use these bacteria as biosensors of the
ecological status of such an unknown environment so far".
Analysis are being conducted by a team that includes
researchers from the Institute of Marine Sciences (CSIC), the Mediterranean
Institute for Advanced Studies –joint centre of CSIC and the University of the
Balearic Islands (UIB)– and the National Genome Analysis Centre of Barcelona
They also count on the collaboration of MareNostrum
–National Supercomputing Centre (BSC) in Barcelona–, the Joint Genome Institute
(USA) and the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (Germany).
Millions of new genes
According to Josep Maria Gasol, CSIC researcher at the
Institute of Marine Sciences and leader of the Malaspina block of
microorganisms, samples "are especially valuable because they come from
areas that have been poorly studied in a scientific sense up to now, such as
the Indian and South Pacific Oceans. Recent evidences suggest that the deep
ocean contains active and highly diverse bacteria, as well as archaea,
protists, viruses and zooplankton".
Jesús María Arrieta, CSIC researcher at the Mediterranean
Institute for Advanced Studies, explains: "The number of marine species
used as a source of genes with commercial interests grows at a rate of 12% per
annum. The biotechnological potential of marine organisms is immense,
especially in the deep ocean. We hope that the genes collected in Malaspina
Expedition open the door to multiple biotechnological applications in fields
such as bioenergy, food or cosmetics".
Duarte emphasizes: "This collection has an incalculable
strategic value because no country has this kind of samples on a global scale.
We are going to provide international databases with hundreds of millions of
new genes with unknown metabolic capabilities so far and with potential
applications. When we started to manage Malaspina, we didn't expect that it was
possible to sequence in Spain. However, we have the necessary technology now to
carry it out".