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Mission to explore genomic diversity of Indian Ocean

Vanita Srivastava

doi:10.1038/nindia.2021.37 Published online 14 March 2021

The scientists with the research vessel.
Twenty three scientists set sail on a research vessel off the eastern coast of India today (14 March 2021) on a three-month-long quest to map the genomic and proteomic diversity of the Indian Ocean. Peering into the biochemical processes in ocean life, the scientists from the National Institute of Oceanography (NIO) also hope to come back with a deeper understanding of how the ocean responds to climate change, nutrient stress and pollution.

The research vessel Sindhu Sadhana, flagged off from the Visakhapatnam coast in Andhra Pradesh, will cover a distance of nearly 10,000 nautical miles trying to identify and characterise genes and proteins from marine life. The researchers will also explore the macro- and micro-nutrients in the waters to understand cellular level operations of ocean organisms, NIO Director Sunil Kumar Singh told Nature India. 

The scientists will use modern molecular biomedical techniques, genetic sequencing and bioinformatics to understand the ecosystem dynamics of the Indian Ocean, the third largest water body in the world holding 20 per cent of its water. Head of the scientific team Samir Damare said instruments on board Sindhu Sadhana will collect water and sediment samples from as deep as 6000 meters to study metals, genomes and proteins.

Using proteins, the catalysts of biogeochemical reactions, the researchers will try to identify the physiological responses of ocean organisms under varying conditions. The large oceanic genetic information generated in the form of an RNA and DNA library can be utilised for future bio-prospecting explorations.

With the gene-level research, the team, consisting biologists, geologists, chemists, biochemists and geochemists, is expecting to get new insights into taxonomy and adaptive capacity that can help conservation efforts around marine species, Singh said. The scientists are also hoping to find commercial biotechnology applications — anticancer treatments, cosmetics, industrial enzymes and antiviral molecules — from the exploration.

Ocean lab

Research vessel Sindhu Sadhana.

© NIO

“The expedition is unique as it will cover the entire Indian Ocean. We will combine different areas of research including  chemistry and genomic studies in the marine ecosystem," said geochemist Nirmalya Malla, a Senior Research Fellow at NIO. Marine scientist Shruti Shah, on her third such expedition, said this exploration would be different for its broad scientific importance. “I am excited as this is also a part of my Phd research. I am looking forward to getting many samples that may open new frontiers for marine science.”

The large volume of information generated from marine genomics will need augmentation of computational and bioinformatics capacity, Singh said. 

Marine genomics is a critical area of research as the oceans are a relatively unexplored habitat, said Rakesh Mishra, Director of Hyderabad-based CSIR-Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology. "It will also be an important to understand the evolution of marine organisms, including microbial species," he said.

Trace metals find their way into the ocean via continental run-offs, atmospheric deposits, hydrothermal activities and continental shelf interaction. Singh said it is important to understand the interaction of these metals with marine biota for a holistic understanding of nutrient cycling and productivity of the oceans. The mission is expected to generate new information on trace metals from lesser explored regions of the Indian Ocean.