Read more about the Indigo V Expedition in these articles featured in the Sydney Morning Herald and the UNSW Newsroom

In the spirit of the Global Ocean Survey, and other major expeditions such as Tara Oceans, Indigo V will leave Cape Town this May and over the course of six months sail to Singapore, examining the microbes inhabiting some of the most under-sampled waters on the globe. This will be an example of an “Algal”roots oceanographic campaign, utilising inexpensive, flexible and robust equipment.

Proof of concept – open source, crowdsourced microbial oceanography
Oceanography has long been an extremely expensive discipline. Oceanographic vessels generally cost in excess of $100,000 a day to run.  They are limited in their range and can only cover a few collection points per cruise.  Specialised scientific equipment only adds to the mountainous costs.  What is the best way to tackle this ‘bottleneck’ in data collection?  Divide and conquer.
Thousands of private ocean going vessels are cruising around the worlds oceans at any given time.  By equipping these vessels with small portable sampling devices, ‘fool-proof’ collection techniques and a ‘self-addressed-stamped-envelope’ to send in the samples, we will transform the way data is collected around the worlds oceans.  We aim to prove that ‘bigger’ is not necessarily ‘better’ and the key to greater understanding of the worlds oceans is to forge the way to easier and cheaper data sampling methods.

Indigo V Expedition is the working prototype for this concept and is working as a blue-print for what we call ‘citizen science’.  Every day there are thousands of manned vessels that cruise the worlds oceans (see the map below) and, with the help of cruisers world-wide we can to turn them into in situ marine microbe monitoring platforms, helping us all understand the world’s ocean in a holistic and comprehensive way.

Each red dot represents on report of a yacht undertaking an ocean cruise (source
Each red dot represents one report of a yacht undertaking an ocean cruise (source

Illuminating the Ocean’s Living Dark Matter (Macquarie University, Professor Ian Paulsen, Dr Martin Ostrowski and Dr Sophie Mazard)

Most people’s view of marine life conjures images of whales, dolphins, monster squid from the ocean deep or spectacularly diverse rock pools. As a microbiologist my view is different. When I gaze into the clear crystal blue ocean I see vast numbers of bacteria, cyanobacteria and microscopic algae that play an important role in maintaining the health of our planet. These microorganisms are incredibly abundant and diverse, yet they cannot be seen with the naked eye, and they are too small to be characterised with a microscope.

For centuries we have relied on our waterways, coasts and oceans for food, water and transport, and to detoxify waste produced by society and industry. Understanding the function of the microbial ‘dark matter’, which forms the base of aquatic ecosystems, is therefore incredibly important. One way to find out what microbes are doing (and who they are) is to probe their genetic material using sequencing, molecular probes, and biochemical tracers. These techniques have helped us to peer into the microbial black box to gauge the biochemical potential and measure the contribution of marine microbes to global geochemical cycles. We now know that marine microbes are responsible for about half of all global primary production and we are just beginning to understand how microbial species have adapted and evolved to proliferate in different acquatic niches.

Our research team uses a range of global approaches to understand how species of cyanobacteria adapt to and thrive in different environments. We have established a state-of-the-art flow cytometry, cell-sorting and image analysis facility that enables us to dissect out single cells from complex communities. An ecosystem is the sum of its parts. Our aim is to understand how individual genes and species contribute to the ecosystem-wide activity in complex communities so that we can make better predictions about the future function of marine ecosystems.

Participating in the IndigoV expedition enables us to gather samples from the blue ocean collaborate with researchers investigating other important microbial processes, including marine snow degradation (Federico Lauro, UNSW), biogeography (Joe Grzymski, DRI; Mark Brown, UNSW), Nitrogen Fixation (Lauren Messer and Justin Seymour, UTS) and microbial genomics.

Impact of shipping on ocean microbes.
Ships are constantly travelling the ocean, and as they sail they leave behind traces of iron and other metals that are not always abundant in seawater, especially in the tropics. These metals (or the lack of them) are often limiting factors to the growth of ocean microbes. During our leg from the Maldives to Phuket we sample in the busiest shipping lane in the world (bright orange lines in the map below). By comparing these samples to those taken just outside the shipping lane we can identify how the deposition of iron impacts the local microbial community. An recent re-analysis of data from the GOS showed that while “the affinity of phosphate transporters is related to the concentration of phosphate .. the occurrence of iron transporters is connected to the amount of shipping, pollution, and iron-containing dust (Patel et al 2010).

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Diversity, distribution and activity of diazotrophs in the Indian Ocean
Nitrogen is one of the essential elements required for life, and is a key constituent of cellular proteins and nucleic acids, energy transfer compounds, photosynthetic pigments and bacterial cell walls (Karl et al., 2002). Consequently, nitrogen availability is considered a primary limiting factor for biological productivity particularly in oligotrophic marine environments (Galloway et al., 2004). Nitrogen plays a central role in ocean biogeochemistry, with nitrogen cycling believed to greatly influence the cycling of other critical elements including both carbon and phosphorous (Gruber, 2008).

Within the surface waters of the oceans N2 is the dominant form of nitrogen, and although present in abundance, the stability of the triple bond of N2 renders it unreactive and therefore biologically unavailable to marine primary producers (Karl et al., 2002). A diverse yet specific group of microorganisms (termed diazotrophs) have evolved the ability to tap in to this reservoir of dissolved N2 gas through biological nitrogen fixation. The activity of diazotrophs in oligotrophic marine environments is extremely important, providing an input of bioavailable fixed nitrogen to the oceanic nitrogen pool (Mahaffey et al., 2005).

While nitrogen fixation is predicted to be a significant process within the Indian Ocean (Luo et al., 2012) there is a severe lack of distribution and activity data for diazotrophs throughout this region. Conducting nitrogen fixation rate measurements within the Indian Ocean is of “high priority” (Luo et al., 2012) if we are to fully understand the significance of global marine nitrogen fixation. During Indigo V we will determine rates of nitrogen fixation in the surface waters of the Indian Ocean, along a transect between the Maldives and Thailand. In addition, we will determine the biogeochemical potential of microbial communities and characterise the diversity and relative abundance of diazotrophic microbes.

Indigo V provides the opportunity to undertake the most comprehensive study of nitrogen fixation activity and diazotroph community composition in the Indian Ocean to date; this will improve spatial coverage of nitrogen fixation rate measurements and diazotroph biomass in a critically under sampled region of the global ocean.

Galloway, J., Dentener, F., Capone, D., Boyer, E., Howarth, R. W., Seitzinger, S. P., Asner, G., et al. (2004). Nitrogen cycles: past, present, and future. Biogeochemistry, 70, 153–226.
Gruber, N. (2008). The marine nitrogen cycle: overview and challenges. Nitrogen in the marine environment (pp. 1–50). Elsevier Inc.
Karl, D., Michaels, A., Bergman, B., Capone, D., Carpenter, E. J., Letelier, R. M., Lipschultz, S., et al. (2002). Dinitrogen fixation in the world’s oceans. Biogeochemistry, 57/58, 47–98.
Luo, Y.-W., Doney, S. C., Anderson, L. a., Benavides, M., Berman-Frank, I., Bode, a., Bonnet, S., et al. (2012). Database of diazotrophs in global ocean: abundance, biomass and nitrogen fixation rates. Earth System Science Data, 4(1), 47–73.
Mahaffey, C., Michaels, A. F., & Capone, D. G. (2005). The conundrum of marine N2 fixation. American Journal of Science, 305, 546–595. 
Patel PV, Gianoulis TA, Bjornson RD, Yip KY, Engelman DM, Gerstein MB (2010) Analysis of membrane proteins in metagenomics: Networks of correlated environmental features and protein families. Genome Biology 20 : 960-971


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