Biodiversity of Planctonic Eukariotes - Its Importance for Global Biogeochemical Cycles and for Monitoring the Health of Marine Environments
Total Grant

€ 1,569,444

Consortium partners

Biological Station of Roscoff, CNRS/UPMC, France — Coordinator : Colomban de Vargas

Institute of Marine Sciences, CSIC, Spain

Dept. of Biosciences, University of Exeter, UK;

Structural and Genomic Information Laboratory, CNRS, France

Oceanography Laboratory, CNRS, France

Dept. of Biosciences, University of Oslo, Norway


Marine unicellular eukaryotic organisms, in particular protists, are among the least explored compartments of biodiversity, yet they are suspected to profoundly impact marine ecosystem functioning, global biogeochemical cycles and climate. They can also offer unexplored functions and be used to propose new indicators of marine environments’ statuses. BioMarKs aimed at exploring this unknown compartment of life and assessing the taxonomic and functional complexity of protistan communities along the European coastlines, to:
1. Establish a baseline of protists biodiversity in European coastal waters, and apply this data to environmental and evolutionary questions on protists;
2. Assess new functions that can be derived from this unexplored taxonomic group and evaluate their use to monitor the health of marine environments.


BioMarKs gathered six research groups from three countries in protist taxonomy, marine biology, molecular ecology and bioinformatics to study marine eukariots along European coastlines, by:
1. Developing effective protocols to obtain genetic, morphological and contextual data on a wide range of protists at different depths in 10 sites from the Arctic ocean to the Italian coast;
2. Using high-throughput sequencing technologies to generate massive DNA datasets and unveil the entire protistan diversity in marine water samples;
3. Developing novel techniques to organise this diversity of protists into coherent units and analyse their ecological distribution and community structuration, exploring links with contextual data on ocean acidification for example;
4. Proposing new indicators to assess the health of marine environments.

Main academic findings

• The BioMarKs team gathered a unique collection of over 3,000 genetic and morphological samples linked with contextual data, and derived over 220 million DNA/RNA barcodes of European marine protists.
• The team revealed novel diversity, including new toxic species, lineages of parasites, and ancestral groups of marine fungi. They discovered in particular a diverse and primitive group of aquatic fungi that challenge current concepts of the fungal tree of life.
• A suite of novel protocols was developed for sampling, molecular ecology analysis, sequencing, bioinformatics screening and ecological statistics, feeding a complete toolbox for modern, cheap and accurate monitoring of marine eukaryotic biodiversity.

Academic results highlight

The BioMarKs team demonstrated the decline in several coccolithophore populations facing increased pressure from ocean acidification (resulting from elevated atmospheric CO2 concentration), and a general pattern of decalcification with more acidic oceans. Currently absorbing one-third of CO2 released into the atmosphere as a result of human activity, the marine carbon cycle could be substantially affected in the light of predicted ocean acidification. However, a noticeable exception was observed for specific types of coccoliths that display a hyper-calcification in highly acidic waters, which may influence the decalcification response of oceans to acidification.

* Beaufort et al. (2011) Sensitivity of coccolithophores to carbonate chemistry and ocean acidification. Nature 476: 80-83

Stakeholder engagement and product relevant to society/policy

BioMarKs was largely a discovery research project that gathered a limited number of stakeholder types (see Figure). The BioMarKs team concentrated its efforts in communicating findings to the general public, notably through numerous interviews and documentaries in written press and television. However, it also engaged with other types of stakeholders:
• In the UK, BioMarKs worked with the CEFAS, a scientific advisor to the government on aquaculture and fisheries with whom the team developed parasite monitoring methods useful to identify threats to fisheries.
• BioMarKs researchers participated in a number of national educational projects with primary and secondary students in France, Norway and the UK.
• BioMarKs’ coordinator gave a « TEDx » talk on the side of the Rio+20 UN conference in 2012 on the « protist power », explaining the importance of such forms of life (

Highlights on society/policy-relevant products

• BioMarKs collaborated with Marine Harvest SA, a fishery company, to develop environmental monitoring in salmon farms.

• The BioMarKs team prepared check-lists of microbial eukaryotic genotypes identified in European marine coastal waters (, identifying their potential implications in terms of human health, environmental hazards, and technology.

• BioMarKs informed the general public during many large audience conferences, press interviews and ar- ticles related to Tara Oceans, a high-profile oceanic campaign coupled to a major communication operation.