The BIOS-SCOPE program, a long-term investigation into the microbial ecology of the Sargasso Sea, was established in 2015 with a team of 22 researchers from Bermuda, the United States, Germany, and the United Kingdom. Earlier this year, the program received an additional five years of funding from the Simons Foundation International. Here, Craig Carlson (foreground, blue hard hat), professor at the University of California at Santa Barbara and the BIOS-SCOPE program director and co-principal investigator, oversees the operation of the Multiple Opening/Closing Net and Environmental Sensing System (or MOCNESS) aboard the R/V Atlantic Explorer during a 2017 BIOS-SCOPE research cruise.
After five years, with more than 25 papers in peer-reviewed scientific journals, six dedicated research cruises, and more than 45 presentations at national and international meetings, the BIOS-SCOPE (Bermuda Institute of Ocean Sciences – Simons Collaboration on Ocean Processes and Ecology) program has received five years of additional funding from the Simons Foundation International to continue its study of the microbial oceanography of the Sargasso Sea.
“The Simons Foundation International has a long history of supporting collaborative research into marine microbial oceanography,” said Bill Curry, president and CEO of BIOS and program leader for BIOS-SCOPE. “We’re grateful for the opportunity to continue BIOS-SCOPE’s valuable collaborations and interdisciplinary efforts to provide insight into this unique ecosystem.”
BIOS-SCOPE was founded in 2015 with a team of 22 researchers from Bermuda, the United States, Germany, and the United Kingdom representing BIOS, Oregon State University, the University of California at Santa Barbara, the University of Exeter, and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. The collaboration’s research efforts focus on the Sargasso Sea, a region in the North Atlantic Ocean that was chosen for two reasons.
First, its geographical location—within a subtropical gyre, or system of circulating ocean currents—is representative of much of the global ocean. This particular location experiences distinct seasonal patterns, which helps scientists understand the consequences of global change, such as increases in average sea surface temperature.
Second, it is also the site of the Bermuda Atlantic Time-series Study (BATS), an oceanographic time-series program, established in 1988, that represents one of the few locations in the world where oceanographers have collected continuous physical, chemical, and biological data from monthly research cruises over a period of decades. These data have advanced our understanding of both seasonal processes and long-term trends in the global ocean, and are instrumental in interpreting data from other, more focused, studies.
The goal of BIOS-SCOPE is straightforward, but ambitious: to leverage more than 30 years of data collected by BATS to understand how organic matter is cycled within a web of ecological interactions in the Sargasso Sea. How this matter is transformed by various organisms, such as microbes and zooplankton, that produce, consume, and redistribute it throughout the water column is a key question. Where does organic matter accumulate in the open ocean, and are there microorganisms that can take advantage of these accumulations? Are there seasonal patterns to how organic matter is distributed and, if so, how do organisms respond to these patterns?
BIOS-SCOPE investigator Leocadio Blanco-Bercial works below deck on the R/V Atlantic Explorer at night controlling the MOCNESS. The net system comprises nine nets, each 30 feet (9 meters) in length, that can be opened and closed—one by one—as they are towed through the water across different depths. Sensors on the MOCNESS send information on environmental characteristics, such as temperature, depth, and salinity, to the bridge computer, where Blanco-Bercial checks the system is working properly and activates the net release system. At night, red lights are used indoors to allow scientists to read the instruments and notebooks, while preserving the night vision of both the crew and scientists. Photo by Hannah Gossner.
A Different Approach
“What really sets BIOS-SCOPE apart are the investigators from different backgrounds who come together using systems biology, genomics, and marine chemistry, combined with an extensive field program and rigorous experimental design processes, to interpret microbial and biogeochemical patterns,” said Craig Carlson, professor at the University of California at Santa Barbara and the BIOS-SCOPE program director and co-principal investigator. “When you add in the backdrop of the time-series data from BATS, as well as data collected by gliders from the BIOS-operated Mid-Atlantic Glider Initiative and Collaboration (MAGIC) program, we’ve really been able to focus on specific questions and interpret finer changes on smaller time scales.”
In addition to Carlson, seven BIOS scientists actively work on BIOS-SCOPE research on a broad range of topics, with four serving as investigators: zooplankton ecologist and associate scientist Leocadio Blanco-Bercial; physical oceanographer and manager of the MAGIC program Ruth Curry; biological oceanographer and associate scientist Amy Maas; and microbial oceanographer and manager of the BIOS Microbial Ecology Laboratory, Rachel Parsons.
“This project is a unique opportunity to do research that is difficult to accomplish through traditional funding streams,” Blanco-Bercial said. “It is an integrative study from viruses to zooplankton, and everything in between, that explores the linkages between these compartments of the ocean, with the added knowledge of environmental conditions from BATS and MAGIC.”
“For my own research, it has allowed me to expand my studies to a group that I have been interested in my whole life, but never studied: marine fungi. The role of these organisms in the open ocean is still poorly understood and underestimated, and BIOS-SCOPE is giving us the chance to put them within the context of the entire planktonic community,” he said.
Another unique aspect of BIOS-SCOPE is its visiting scholar program, which has proven to be a successful mechanism for attracting expertise for shorter periods of concentrated effort to explore additional lines of collaborative research. During the first five years of the program, this led to three collaborations with researchers from the University of Georgia (who are now at the University of New Hampshire), the University of Miami, the Technical University of Berlin, and the GEOMAR-Helmholz Centre for Ocean Research, Kiel.
“Bringing in additional investigators at various points throughout the program has led us in new and exciting directions with our preliminary data sets,” Carlson said. “These studies have helped identify new areas of research that we propose to investigate over the next five years.”
Now, with funding renewed for another five years, the BIOS-SCOPE team is poised to continue to advance our understanding of the sources, sinks, and transformations of organic matter in the Sargasso Sea. In its second phase, BIOS-SCOPE researchers plan to explore links between the ocean’s biological, geological, and chemical cycles (or biogeochemical cycles, such as nitrogen), the structure of the phytoplankton community, and how this affects the quality, quantity, and cycling of organic matter.
In addition, new technological approaches that involve the recovery of genetic material directly from the environment, called metagenomics, will be used to look at the ecology of marine viruses and how they impact the microbial community and biogeochemical cycles. Researchers will continue to explore the fate of organic matter and how it is transformed by zooplankton and other microbial communities to learn more about how these transformation processes are driven and what they can tell us about the water column.
“Ocean biology plays an incredibly important role in controlling the largest biogeochemical cycles in the global ocean,” Carlson said. “While we have learned a lot over the past several decades, we have only scratched the surface of a mechanistic understanding of biological and chemical interactions. BIOS-SCOPE’s aim is to help advance that understanding.”