The Ocean Genome

An encyclopedic catalog for Nature as a way to provide guidance and explanations for how life works

In the coming weeks we are exploring some simple strategies for living on and with the Earth: fresh approaches, new technologies, novel ideas, and viable alternatives in an oceanic flow, introducing examples of ingenuity, invention, possibility and systematic engagement with the ocean.

Understanding the genome has also informed the actuality of evolution of the species, the DNA combinations that have enabled certain species to adapt and thrive over time to meet the radically changing conditions of the surrounding environment, to respond successfully to exterior challenges, and to expand its tools for living that have accrued to the extent we presume to call civilization. From something so small and vulnerable comes an entity and organization so enormous, yet still so fragile, as adaptations on Earth, on land and sea, as knowledge accumulated for human survival. What do we do with what we know?

DNA has triggered any number of technical, medical, and financial initiatives. GMOs, genetically modified organisms, for example, have had enormous impact on industrial agriculture, seeds for crop variants like corn that are more resistant to certain diseases with major increase in yield. In seafood, the introduction of growth hormones from a Pacific chinook into the genetic structure of an Atlantic salmon has proven to increase appetite and to bring fish to market size faster than other farmed salmon. There is also some evidence that such gene transfer can occur outside the lab, eDNA, loose in seawater for example, transfers a genetic characteristic outside normal reproduction, in one controversial case an “antifreeze” gene naturally passed from herring to smelt to help survival in extreme cold water.

The financial implications are obvious, and research into eDNA in the ocean is growing in the form of seawater sampling data to be used to monitor and collect bio-informatics, stored and interpreted to monitor abundance and location of fish species, to inform regulators, protect over-catch, calculate quotas, and close certain areas to protect future population and conserve supply.

The value to commercial enterprise is already revealed: the reduction of time and expense for comparison studies of environmental conditions for documentation required for offshore oil, gas, and mining; for port expansion and dredging; and for coastal development. Some government regulations approve or require eDNA analysis for environmental impact statements on which very lucrative opportunities are approved or denied.

The ocean genome, then, is not just an abstraction without practical, possibly dangerous implications. As usual, commercial interests are out in front with efficiencies and advantages financed and in place for exploitation of resources newly accessed and technologies newly applied. An article in the August 2020 volume of Nature Sustainability, an academic journal, states that “of the 34 major animal phyla existing, only 12 are found on land, while the rest are found in the sea. It is estimated that some 2.2 million probably exist in the ocean, of which only 230,000 are confirmed…This number and diversity of marine life reaches monumental orders of magnitude…some 24–98% of marine species…remain undescribed.”

What do we do with what we don’t know? It is clear that we don’t know a lot, and yet we are already hard at monetizing our ignorance to the advantage of corporate interest, private profit, and repeating the mistakes of the past by applying failed premises to the last great opportunity before us, for the benefit for all human kind, as vast and deep and dynamic as the ocean itself.

PETER NEILL is founder and director of the World Ocean Observatory, a web-based place of exchange for information and educational services about the health of the world ocean.

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Dedicated to proposals for change in ocean policy and action worldwide, linking unexpected people with unexpected ideas about the ocean.

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World Ocean Forum

Dedicated to proposals for change in ocean policy and action worldwide, linking unexpected people with unexpected ideas about the ocean.