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Unleashing the potential of citizen science in AtlantECO: Sail for Science and Plankton Planet

A Journey into the Ocean Microbiome and the Collaborative Power of Citizen Involvement

Anna Oddone, Plankton Planet

In the 43rd episode of the AtlantECO podcast, we chat about citizen science and how we use it in AtlantECO with Anna Oddone, from Plankton Planet.

Anna tells us about the Sail for Science initiative, delivered through the Plankton Planet project, which aims to engage citizens in collecting data on the ocean microbiome. It originated from the Tara Ocean Expedition in 2009 and 2012, during which Tara sailed around the world for two years, systematically studying plankton using consistent protocols. This expedition revealed numerous new genes and species, providing valuable insights into the planktonic microbiome. However, due to the dynamic nature of the ecosystem, continuous monitoring is necessary to understand its changes over time, as well as its response to climate change and human activities.

Accurate mathematical models for understanding and predicting the ocean require high spatial and temporal resolutions, which necessitate a large volume of data points. Conducting extensive research expeditions with specialised vessels is expensive and limited in scope. In contrast, there are thousands of commercial, military, and recreational boats sailing the oceans daily for various purposes. In that sense, a citizen science approach offers a potential solution by involving the public in data collection. The Plankton Planet initiative recognised this untapped resource and decided to develop low-cost, robust instruments that non-scientists could deploy on boats to collect scientific data on the ocean microbiome worldwide. The collected data would be deposited in open-access databases, enabling scientists worldwide to access and utilise it for their studies.

In the context of AtlantECO, Sail for Science activities are being carried out to contribute to the overall scientific goals. One such activity involves developing and testing instruments to be deployed on sailing boats, for “planktonauts” the citizens participating in the initiative. Three instruments have been developed: the high-speed net, the Lamprey DNA kit, and the PlanktoScope.

Left: high speed net, Middle: Lamprey DNA kit and Right: PlanktoScope

The high-speed net allows plankton collection during normal cruising speeds of up to eight knots, unlike traditional nets that require the boat to be stationary or moving very slowly. The Lamprey DNA kit filters seawater through a membrane, capturing plankton, which is then dried on the membrane and sent to laboratories for genomic analysis. The PlanktoScope, a semi-automated microscope with a 3D system, enables quantitative imaging of plankton, capturing their morphology. This instrument provides not only information about species presence but also visual insights into their size, colour, and other characteristics.

The instruments have undergone testing on board Tara, demonstrating their effectiveness comparable to standard instruments used by scientists. Feedback from experts within the AtlantECO network has further refined the prototypes. The next phase involves deploying these instruments on sailing boats, for which a set of protocols and manuals are prepared. Dozens of "planktonauts" will be trained to use the instruments, collecting data and providing feedback on usability. The main sampling route will be the North Atlantic route, commonly used by sailing boats. Additionally, there will be routes in the southeast of the Atlantic, specifically from Cape Town to Europe and vice versa.

While oceanographic vessels in AtlantECO conduct their research, the Sail4Science initiative will implement simplified versions of our protocols. Comparing the results from these lighter deployments with those obtained from standard oceanographic vessels will yield valuable insights.

The enthusiasm from sailors and citizens to understand and appreciate the ocean they sail on is evident. People who sail generally have a deep connection with nature and actively seek initiatives that help them explore and comprehend the ocean better. The instruments used in the project enable sailors to observe the hidden aspects of marine life that would otherwise remain unseen, revealing the richness of life beneath the ocean's surface, a world that only becomes visible through the lens of microscopes and reveals the astonishing beauty and diversity of marine ecosystems.

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