EMO BON (European Marine Omics Biodiversity Observation Network) is a long-term omics observatory of marine biodiversity. But what does that mean and why are long-term genomic observatories important?
To find out, we spoke with Neil Davies, University of California Berkeley, who is based on the island of Mo’orea in French Polynesia and specialises in biodiversity genomics and sustainability science.
Why we study biodiversity
“Biodiversity is nature's solutions to millions and millions of different problems that nature has solved over billions of years,” explains Davies.
Discovering how organisms overcame the problems thrown their way could be useful in our own stewarding of biodiversity and nature as well as creating direct economic value in a sustainable world. “Whether we call it bio-mimicry or bio-design, taking an ecological approach to circular economies requires learning from nature over time,” he says.
Long-term ecological research
But many questions cannot be answered through short-term observations. “You can't truly understand living, complex, adaptive systems unless you understand them through time,” says Davies.
While snapshots of data can be useful, researchers need to see how they change over decades. Because “who knows what the world will be like in 20 years?” The island of Bora Bora is more than three million years old, he says, so “even two decades is a short period of time evolutionarily.”
That’s where long-term genomic observatories like EMO BON come in. Davies believes initiatives like this are necessary in studying how things are changing over long, sustained periods of time.
As part of a growing global effort to create interoperable observatories, EMO BON enables experts around Europe to build shared scientific approaches. Coordinating their efforts in this way means research results from different observatories can be compared, speeding up scientific advances.
“There are lots of people doing similar things in different places, for good reason,” says Davies. “We should duplicate things in science to test each other's work but not without knowing about it.”
Technological advances have helped boost discoveries in ocean science but when comparing marine stations to other disciplines – such as space exploration – “we’re very far behind,” says Davies. Lots of marine sampling efforts require people to enter a site and extract materials so physical access is both critical and a limiting factor. “We can’t read DNA from satellites,” he adds.
Instead, genomic observatories allow researchers to gain an understanding of systems at a larger scale through focal calibration sites. “EMO BON is a huge step forward,” says Davies.
Huge levels of investment
Such a huge endeavour doesn't come without its challenges. The collective action needed to understand these systems is very expensive and requires “a level of investment that even relatively rich European countries might struggle to offer individually,” says Davies. That’s why EMO BON is vital in enabling groups of countries to put in place the right level of infrastructure on continental scales.
“EMO BON is a huge example of a genomic observatory with the kind of scale that's needed and the kind of backing,” he says.
Overcoming environmental challenges
Davies sees EMO BON as a major contributor to the UN Ocean Decade’s Ocean Biomolecular Observing Network (OBON) programme.
Through this global collaboration, EMO BON and other observatories can be part of “a forum for discussions among different players in a formalised but not prescriptive way,” says Davies. It allows researchers around the world to exchange ideas and learn from each other when it comes to things like standards, training and capacity building.
The results are increasingly valued too, he adds: “We're beginning to see the benefits of having that kind of infrastructure as people, appreciate the challenges we're facing environmentally.”
It shouldn’t be forgotten that these genomic observatories also help us understand how nature responds to human actions in these locations.
Understanding how ecosystems respond to anthropogenic changes is vital when making evidence-based policy decisions. “In these places, we might have the best chance of making predictions about what the likely natural response will be to policy changes, whether that be fishing quotas or something else,” he says.
As ecosystems around the world face increasing pressures, long-term observations can teach us how to maximise ecosystems’ resilience to common threats and maintain their resources in a sustainable way. For Davies, “using that scientific understanding to achieve social goals is a powerful thing.”