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Dispatch 21: Collecting Beafort Microbes

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Peter Lourie

October 11, 2016

There have been some pretty late nights and a few of the samplers like Adam Monier are sometimes still awake working on their samples when I wake at 5.

This is Adam’s third time in the Arctic on a Canadian vessel.  From the University of Exeter in England, Adam is French and used to work in Quebec City at Université Laval.  With a specialty in ocean microbiology, he’s interested in marine microbes and how they are structured across the water column and how these microbial communities are changing in the environment. 

He says, “Working in the fast-changing ecosystem of the Arctic Ocean, we are monitoring very closely the microbial community which is being impacted by climate change.  We see it in the microbes.”

He can’t do everything onboard the ship.  When you’re conducting fieldwork onboard, it can be pretty frustrating because you don’t get a direct visual feedback without microscopes. So here he (along with Arthi Ramachandran and David Colatriano from Concordia in Montreal) are mostly filtering seawater with the purpose of analyzing DNA later. 

“There are different ways to study microbes in the field.  You can use microscopy, but some microbes have very little morphological features, they’re just blobs, so you can’t really assign them a species name.  So for the last decades or so we’ve been using DNA as a barcode to classify the microbes.  To get a snapshot of microbial communities we’re using their DNA molecules.  We use specific genes to study those microbes.  So what we’re doing here is filtering seawater and collecting microbes on filters, then freezing them.  So when we’re back in the lab, we can retrieve all the DNA from those different microbes and then sequence that DNA.  We have a specific gene that we’re looking for and that gene is a signature for microbe species.  The big work is not here on the boat in terms of analysis but rather later once we get all the samples home.  Onboard we’re basically filtrating a lot of water.”

By training, Adam mostly does data analysis on genes, genomes, and DNA molecules using a computer.  It’s very much molecular biology.  He doesn’t often go into the field (five or six times before), but he still considers himself a marine biologist even though he spends 99 percent of his time behind a computer or in the laboratory. 

In fact he loves going out in the field. And you can sense it from his energy level.  When he isn’t in the gym working out or filtering water, he’s sharing information with other scientists. He says it’s fantastic being on an icebreaker and meeting wonderful colleagues, but also this kind of fieldwork helps him better understand his data, especially in terms of contamination.  When he was doing his PhD in Marseilles, he was analyzing public databases of marine microbe DNA samples from all over the world, but never had gone on an oceanographic cruise.  So, as he says, “I was able to analyze all that data but I didn’t really have a feel for it, for how some might have been contaminated.  I was pretty much naïve in terms of my analysis.”  Getting out here and working with samplers has given him a better understanding of the environment the samples are from, and about what other scientists are studying in the Beaufort.  He’s all for modelers making trips like this one.

Like many onboard, Adam thinks working in the field (“being stuck for a month on an icebreaker”) with other biological and physical oceanographers, is a great opportunity to put his microbes in context.  This has led Adam to think more about how the microbes have evolved, how those microbes can adapt and cope with changes. Talking with oceanographers aboard helps him get a deeper understanding of where “my microbes” are actually living. 

It’s a more “holistic way of interpreting” his data.  Sometimes Adam works all night long for good reason.  He’s happy out here, like the rest of us.

To learn more about Peter Lourie click here.

Last updated: October 7, 2019

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