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The Ocean Race reveals groundbreaking eDNA initiative

September 14 2023 - News Release News Editorial

The Ocean Race has revealed that environmental DNA (eDNA) was collected during the 2022-23 edition of the competition in a groundbreaking initiative designed to lift the lid on ocean health and biodiversity.

The Ocean Race reveals groundbreaking eDNA initiative

The Ocean Race has revealed that environmental DNA (eDNA) was collected during the 2022-23 edition of the competition in a groundbreaking initiative designed to lift the lid on ocean health and biodiversity.

In a world first for racing boats, 11th Hour Racing Team, winner of the six-month long sailing regatta, took samples during the fourth leg of the race, which covered 5,550-nautical miles from Itajai in Brazil to Newport in Rhode Island, USA.

The initiative formed part of The Ocean Race’s Science programme, which aims to support understanding about the state of the seas.

“eDNA sampling is at the forefront of biodiversity testing and is a powerful tool for understanding ocean health and how the major threats of climate change and pollution affect it. The more we know about the ocean, the more effectively we can protect it,” said Stefan Raimund, Ocean Advisor at The Ocean Race.

“Having successfully trialled the sampling during The Ocean Race 2022-23, we hope to scale it up for future races and have more boats collecting this data, including in remote and vital parts of the ocean, where even less information is available for scientists.”

A total of 27 water samples were gathered between April 23 and May 10 and then analysed by the Cawthron Institute, New Zealand’s largest independent scientific organisation.

The boat gathered the samples through an on-board OceanPack – an instrument that measures a range of ocean data, including salinity, temperature, carbon dioxide, oxygen and trace elements – that worked automatically and continuously throughout the race.

The eDNA was then sampled through the vessel’s existing seawater flow-through system, pumping two litres of water through eDNA filters for laboratory analysis.

Each sample included genetic material contained in microbes or shed by thousands of marine species through their waste products and skin cells – and analysis produced some fascinating findings.

There was a striking correlation between the abundance of ocean bacteria that break down plastic and latitude, with analysis showing the highest levels of the bacteria – where greater plastic degradation takes place – at lower latitudes near Brazil’s coastline.

Analysis also found that parasitic bacteria, which can be a threat to the health of other species – including humans – are strongly linked with increased sea surface temperature and longitude, with higher abundances closer to landmasses.

Xavier Pochon, Team Leader, Molecular Surveillance, Cawthron Institute and Associate Professor, University of Auckland, said: “We’re very excited about the data collected during The Ocean Race, particularly those linked with pathogens and plastic degraders. These are interesting findings because very little is known about their distribution and ecology across large latitudinal gradients.

“Our eDNA collection system on racing boats offers significant benefits over traditional research methods as it allows scientists to audit biodiversity from across the tree of life, more rapidly, cheaply and with minimum hands-on time for the sailors. We are looking forward to equipping many more racing boats in the future and propelling our knowledge of marine life into uncharted waters”.

The Ocean Race’s Science programme is one of the pillars of the Racing with Purpose sustainability programme that was created with Premier Partner 11th Hour Racing.

Image: Amory Ross

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