Mission Microplastics – The Tara Ocean Foundation

Throughout her expeditions since 2010, the schooner Tara has been collecting small particles of plastic – known as microplastics – in virtually all of her nets. Inspired by this growing problem, the Tara Ocean Foundation’s newest endeavour, Mission Microplastics, will study the nature of the plastic pollution entering the ocean from the European mainland. From June to November 2019, scientists aboard Tara will sample the microplastics flowing from the estuaries of 10 of Europe’s major rivers, using superfine microplastic-collecting nets.

Microplastics: an invisible threat

From the Mediterranean to the Pacific, from the Arctic to the Antarctic, the observations are clear: traces of plastic are prevalent throughout the world’s seas and oceans. While the build-up of plastic waste on beaches is eye-catching, increasing concentrations of microplastics present a less obvious danger.

These plastic particles and the potentially toxic chemicals they may carry with them, such as solvents, dyes and pesticides, are broken down by the Sun’s ultraviolet radiation and the motion of the waves, and interact with many marine organisms. Recent studies have found that most marine species, including the tiny plankton that form the basis of many ocean ecosystems, now contain microplastics. These present a real danger for the entire marine food chain and for human health, but their impact on living organisms is still poorly documented.

© David Sauveur - Fondation Tara Océan

© David Sauveur - Fondation Tara Océan

Mission Microplastics aims to answer the following questions:

  • What does the composition of a microplastic reveal about its source?
  • How do microplastics disperse once out at sea?
  • Which species of flora and fauna colonise plastic particles?
  • Which types of plastics are the most toxic to marine biodiversity?
  • How do the concentrations of toxic substances carried by plastics build up in the food chain?
  • Where can we best focus our efforts to stop the stream of plastic into the ocean?

© Noélie Pansiot - Fondation Tara Océan

© Noélie Pansiot - Fondation Tara Océan

Between land and sea

Tara has sailed and sampled the open oceans of the world, but this time she’s staying closer to the shore. By approaching coastlines and sailing up rivers, the scientists will help trace ocean microplastics back to their origin on land. Unlike aggregate or global statistics, the collection of regional data will help identify local sources of plastic pollution and will aid the development of local policies to reduce the quantity of microplastics that make it out to sea.

The schooner will make 18 stopovers during its journey through the Baltic and North Seas, along Europe’s Atlantic coast and around the western Mediterranean. These stops will include activities to engage the public, scientists, stakeholders, local authorities and the private sector and to raise awareness of the risks of microplastic pollution. In addition to tours, lectures and press conferences onboard the sailboat, visitors will be greeted by an exhibition on the research conducted by the Tara Ocean Foundation.

Several of these stopovers will bring the vessel close to EMBL’s sites around Europe. During Tara’s time in port, EMBL will be holding events such as visits to the schooner and talks and press conferences about EMBL’s visionary fundamental research and technology development in the life sciences. “As the largest cohesive ecosystem on Earth, the oceans can provide us with insights that are crucial not only for the preservation of mankind, but also of our planet,” says Edith Heard, EMBL Director General. “EMBL will continue working to gain these vital insights in future, together with the Tara Ocean Foundation and the French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS), among others.”

The EMBL stopovers will be:

  • London, 11–13 June (EMBL-EBI)
  • Hamburg, 16–19 June (EMBL Hamburg)
  • Rome, 12–15 September (EMBL Rome)
  • Marseille, 27 September – 2 October (EMBL Grenoble). The stopover in Marseille coincides with the 'EMBL in France' event comprising a tour on the Tara schooner on 29 September, and an EMBL Alumni meeting on 30 September.
  • Barcelona, 4–9 October (EMBL Barcelona). Here, the stopover coincides with two other events. On 5–6 October, the Barcelona Biomedical Research Park (PRBB) – where EMBL Barcelona is situated – will be holding its open days. And on 7 October, EMBL Barcelona will be hosting the ‘EMBL in Spain’ event, organised by EMBL’s Alumni Relations team

EMBL and Tara

EMBL’s collaboration with Tara began with the Tara Oceans expedition (2009–2013). The project was initiated by EMBL group leader Eric Karsenti, who led the mission’s scientific activities. EMBL coordinates the expedition’s scientific consortium, which includes more than 100 scientists from 18 partner institutions. “EMBL continues to make crucial contributions in data analysis, data storage, and in making all data publicly available,” says EMBL Director General Edith Heard. EMBL’s European Bioinformatics Institute (EMBL-EBI) stores the genomics data produced by the expedition.