Research News

New regional diagnostic uses DNA testing to evaluate microbial ocean life

Results improve understanding of forces that drive seafood supply, planet's ability to remove greenhouse gases

Scientists at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography and other institutions have used tools of genetics akin to those in genealogical research to evaluate the diversity of marine life off the California coast. 

Researchers will be able to use the technique, called metabarcoding, to diagnose conditions at the base of the ocean food web that affect the abundance of commercially important fishes or create harmful algal blooms.

The team reports on the findings in the journal Nature Communications. The work was funded by the U.S. National Science Foundation through its California Current Ecosystem Long-Term Ecological Research site.

"It's the ecological sampling method of the future," said study first author Chase James of Scripps Oceanography. "This study represents the first deployment of this approach in a long-term ecological sampling context. It reveals what you can view when hidden diversity is revealed."

The new way of assessing ocean microbiomes -- collections of microscopic plants, animals and other organisms -- vastly improves scientists' ability to perform diagnostics on the oceans.

Researchers used the new genetic information to identify the most important factors governing how many organisms are in surface waters off the California coast, and where they are distributed. James likened the process to scanning the barcodes of all the products in a grocery store to obtain an inventory.

"This study is a combination of new molecular tools that allow us to understand ocean microbes and a multi-year dataset that offers an environmental context," said Cynthia Suchman, a program director in NSF's Division of Ocean Sciences. "The result is a more complete picture of the entire California Current ecosystem and how its components change with ocean conditions."