by Sara Formichetti
It took me a while to metabolise the last two days I spent at the Porto Turistico of Ostia, close to Rome (the city where I was born and raised). We – Italian-speaking volunteers from EMBL Rome – took part in an outreach event organised by the educational association Adamas Scienza and EMBL Rome on the occasion of the Italian stopover of the boat Tara. Why is this boat so special? Because it’s a private boat at the service of the international scientific community. The crew of researchers are studying the global oceanic ecosystem and the impacts of ongoing climate change and plastic pollution.
My role as a volunteer was to guide organised tours of the boat (which were fully booked a month in advance!) for the general public. I will explain some of the reasons why this experience was so motivating for me – both as a scientist and as a citizen of the world.
People’s curiosity about science
I could see first-hand how curious people are about science: they like to have science explained in words they can understand and, most importantly, they like to see scientists getting out of the lab and communicating their research with enthusiasm! Here’s a funny example: during one tour, I was describing Tara‘s mission in relation to plankton, and I ended up being asked by a teenager to explain how cloning works. It went more or less like this:
“Have you actually worked on Tara?”
“No, marine biology is not my field. I study the epigenetics of mammals.”
“What is epigenetics?”
…more people joining the Q&A session, ending up with a question about the feasibility of Jurassic Park…and thus cloning.
The uniqueness of Tara
I was unfamiliar with Tara before being asked to volunteer for this event in Ostia. Getting to know such an example of collaborative research with great aims (and so far working really well to produce results!) made me very glad.
Tara was built by its first owner with the idea of making the Arctic Drift expedition, and this explains its shape, its strong aluminium alloy and the lifting keel. Then, for lack of funding, it was sold to the renowned sailor Sir Peter Blake, who decided to use the boat for oceanic studies: the ocean had given him a lot and it was time to give something back. After he was killed by pirates while sailing on the Amazon, the boat was bought by the fashion designer Agnès B and her son E. Bourgois, who offered it as a platform for scientific research. Over a number of years, the idea was scaled up in partnership with internationally renowned research institutions – EMBL being among the main partners – and the Tara Oceans Foundation has been granted Special Observer status at the UN.
What are the main missions of Tara? Choosing one example, during the Tara Oceans expedition (2009–2013), the boat sailed around the globe and systematically collected samples of plankton from all the oceans, at different depths, leading to the discovery of the rich diversity in plankton species. This complex ecosystem of species that are unable to swim against the current was previously mostly unknown. All aspects of plankton were analysed, from morphology to the genome, and all data were made freely accessible so that scientists all over the world, with different areas of expertise, could use them to build the model of the global plankton ecosystem, which is responsible for producing more than 50% of the oxygen in the Earth’s atmosphere. And there’s more: the data collected are also important to understand the impact that climate change and pollution are having on this important ecosystem. Marine pollution is also at the heart of Tara’s current mission – Mission Microplastics – which is exploring 10 major European rivers (including the Tiber) to examine the flux of plastic waste from land to sea.
A boat with such an unusual aim must have an unusual crew too. It’s a very international team – half of them are sailors and the other half scientists (which are more frequently changing, depending on the mission). Considering that there are often a few months between stopovers, this mixture of culture and expertise becomes like a family, where everybody needs to learn each other’s roles. This can become very important when someone is feeling sick while pipetting above the movement of some-metres-high ocean waves!
To conclude, I would like to compare Tara‘s expeditions to another one that changed the future of our planet – or at least the way we look at it: Darwin’s expedition, which led to the discovery of evolution. I am not the first to make this comparison: one of the members of Tara‘s team is also an artist, and reminds us that in the days of Darwin, newly discovered species were recorded in drawings.
For more information about Tara’s fascinating missions, I encourage you to visit the Tara Oceans website.
I thank the Tara crew and Bianca Silva, who joined the Tara Oceans expedition for two months while a PhD student at EMBL Rome some years ago. She was there with us at the event and inspired us with her memories of Tara.