Measuring Marine Life - across (and beyond) paradigms
Director of Science, CIESM - Mediterranean Science Commission
Marine ecosystems depend upon and influence climate, water quality, and life on Earth in general. They also provide services that can make or break economic development in many regions. Science-based implementation of effective conservation efforts requires reliable monitoring exercises based on standardized indexes and methodologies. Among these, marine biodiversity related indexes represent the key parameters, of which measurement has gathered major efforts across centuries.
Along with the advances of analytical technology, the study of marine biodiversity moved toward more and more sophisticated multi-disciplinary efforts. At present, cutting-edge research provides pictures of life in oceans covering every scale from the smallest molecule to the whole water column and beyond. This, in turn, has revealed a huge, largely untapped, marine microbial diversity lying at the heart of oceans. Not only most microbial diversity is harboured by oceans1, but marine microbes do represent close to two thirds of the global biodiversity on Earth! It follows that marine microbes can now be considered "the life support system of the biosphere", if not the most powerful agents of influence, regulation and change of planetary activities.
Such a major discovery calls for a radical paradigm shift in the way we measure marine biodiversity for marine environmental monitoring programs. The general trends are now more and more focusing on life "functional" traits. To quote a recent, authoritative review, "if a cohort of microbes performing a critical process in nutrient cycling were to be lost from the biosphere, and could not be replaced by another functionally equivalent cohort, life on Earth as we know it would cease to exist"2.
A la Une : the scientific challenge of measuring “functional units”.
1 - Hug et al. (2016) Nature Microbiol. 1, 16048. - https://doi.org/10.1038/nmicrobiol.2016.48
2 - Timmis, K.N. et al. (2019). Env. Microbiol. 21(5), 1513–1528
Laura Giuliano is Scientific Director at the International Mediterranean Science Commission (CIESM), with more than twenty years experience in research and policy. Through her career, she has been covering a wide range of functions: researcher, professor, director, graduate/post-graduate research supervisor, head of laboratory, research advisor.