Putting plankton on the map

Genomic investigations reveal a hidden map of plankton communities stretching across Earth’s oceans.

An artistic interpretation of genomic DNA sequences derived from planktonic organisms, grouped into genomic provinces across the surface oceans, as represented by different colors. Image credit: Paul Frémont, Olivier Jaillon, Daniel Richter, Noan Le Bescot (CC BY 4.0)

Oceans are brimming with life invisible to our eyes, a myriad of species of bacteria, viruses and other microscopic organisms essential for the health of the planet. These ‘marine plankton’ are unable to swim against currents and should therefore be constantly on the move, yet previous studies have suggested that distinct species of plankton may in fact inhabit different oceanic regions. However, proving this theory has been challenging; collecting plankton is logistically difficult, and it is often impossible to distinguish between species simply by examining them under a microscope. However, within the last decade, a research schooner called Tara has travelled the globe to gather thousands of plankton samples. At the same time, advances in genomics have made it possible to identify species based only on fragments of their DNA sequence.

To understand the hidden geography of plankton communities in Earth’s oceans, Richter et al. pored over DNA from the Tara Oceans expedition. This revealed that, despite being unable to resist the flow of water, various planktonic species which live close to the surface manage to occupy distinct, stable provinces shaped by currents. Different sizes of plankton are distributed in different sized provinces, with the smallest organisms tending to inhabit the smallest areas. Comparing DNA similarities and speeds of currents at the ocean surface revealed how these might stretch and mix plankton communities.

Plankton play a critical role in the health of the ocean and the chemical cycles of planet Earth. These results could allow deeper investigation by marine modellers, ecologists, and evolutionary biologists. Meanwhile, work is already underway to investigate how climate change might impact this hidden geography.