Plankton prairies, that generate much of the oxygen we breathe, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, where currents have deposited the world’s trash into a toxic mass the size of North America, and giant viruses, whose genes could prove useful to medicine — these and other under-explored oceanic phenomena will be studied by the first-ever, round-the-globe expedition ‘Tara Ocean’ that is fast approaching the Indian coast.

Having set sail from Lorient, France, last September and navigated through the Red Sea, Tara will dock in Mumbai on March 24.

The three-year expedition will study marine life in the context of climate change. It comprises a team of oceanographers, ecologists, biologists, geneticists, and physicists from universities and institutes around the world. The expedition aims to answer some fundamental questions about the ocean, Chris Bowler, scientific coordinator of Tara Ocean, told The Hindu during a recent visit to Bangalore. “Will marine ecosystems survive climate change and pollution? Are we going to see a transformation of oceanic life?”

But the voyage will also lead to an unprecedented discovery of new species, says Dr. Bowler, who is a Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique at the Ecole Normale Superieure in Paris. The microscopic life in the ocean represents a vital part of the “climate engine,” producing half the oxygen in the atmosphere and absorbing vast quantities of carbon dioxide. “We also know that the ocean is getting more acidic as carbon dioxide emissions increase, endangering marine life.”

In their 150,000-km voyage, the team will assess how corals are adapting to hotter and more acidic seawater; study diatoms, which play a major role in sequestering carbon dioxide from the atmosphere; hunt “giruses” (giant viruses) that infect fish, shrimps and photosynthetic plankton, but whose genes could prove useful to medicine; and sequence DNA of the unicellular ‘protists’ that make up a fifth compartment of life on earth, but about which very little is known.

Prestigious labs from around the world are participating, including the Marine Biology Laboratory (U.S.), Flinders University (Australia), Centre Scientifique de Monaco (France), the University of Milan (Italy) and University of Warwick (U.K.) and the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (Germany).

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