France launches “genetic mapping” of marine biodiversity, with goals

Douglas Klug/Getty image Underwater photography, Santa Barbara

Douglas Klug/Getty image

France launched this Wednesday, January 11, a massive research program, Atlasea, which aims to sequence the genomes of 4,500 species of plants and animals. (Illustration: Underwater Photography, Santa Barbara)

BIODIVERSITY – “Dive into the heart of the ocean genome and discover new species. » This is the whole promise of the program ” Atlasea launched on Wednesday 11 January by the Minister of Higher Education and Research, Sylvie Retailleau. This gigantic project, which is funded by up to 41 million euros by the State, aims to create a “genetic mapping” thousands of marine species from land and foreign waters. An increasingly complex task as France has the second largest maritime domain in the world.

The program, being piloted by the National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS) and the Atomic Energy Commission (CEA), will study the DNA of 4,500 species over eight years, including fish, algae and single-celled organisms. , from France’s exclusive economic zone. Thierry Perez, research director at CNRS, details in HuffPost these three goals “genetic mapping”.

  • A tool to analyze the decline in biodiversity

“The first step is access to biodiversity: we will go to the field, visit collections in museums, go to farms… We will definitely discover new species! », immediately attracted the interest of researchers from the Observatory of Sciences of the Universe Institut Pythéas, who were responsible for sampling the genomes in this project.

“Then the samples will be taken conditioned to be sent to the Genoscope to do work on the DNA using the machine. This computer work will be used to ‘take notes’, i.e. identify what each piece of DNA is being used for. » This identification in particular will allowe researchers to assess the degree of genetic diversity of species, a key indicator for monitoring their state of conservation.

While the warming of the blue planet contributes to a decrease in biodiversity, sequencing is critical for observing the genetic modification of species. ” Let us go without doubt it many genes, enzymes, proteins, are regulated, modulated and affected by heat stress, which is related to climate change”. chose Thierry Perez.

The loss of genetic diversity is indeed the first signal indicating that a species is on the way to extinction. Symptoms are also detected in large cetaceans. “Often, before seeing a species disappear, we realize that it is in danger because of this decline (genetic diversity)” which makes it more susceptible to environmental variations, analysis in this case Patrick Wincker, director of Genoscope, on the CNRS website.

  • Economic importance and possible medical discoveries

Behind this noble goal of protecting marine biodiversity is also hidden economic interests. “Atlasea” is part of “Priority research programs and equipment” launched by the government and whose ambitious project is “sustainably transform key sectors of our economy” by 2030. Thus, the genetic data collected will be used to increase knowledge in various fields ranging from medicine, cosmetics, and agriculture.

Thus the knowledge gained will benefit society, added Thierry Perez, because a number of molecules of marine organisms can be replicated in the laboratory and then used in the medical environment. “For humans, access to genomes has opened up many perspectives, such as curing certain diseases thanks to gene therapy operations. In marine organisms, the same findings can be considered. »

Among the molecules that will be studied, some of them can be used as pesticides in agriculture. The program should also help improve the management of fish stocks, particularly by studying the impact of invasive species.

  • Train the next generation of scientists

Therefore, sequencing the marine genome is of scientific, technological and economic importance. But not only. This research program also has a large training component. While this summer’s heatwave in the Mediterranean caused massive species deaths, Thierry Perez underscored the need to train a new generation of researchers in the knowledge of the marine environment.

“One of the keys to ranking biodiversity is knowing this biodiversity perfectly and identifying it very precisely. However, we are faced with a loss of this expertise: it is becoming scarcer in France and in developed countries”, he regretted. Better knowledge of biodiversity will make it possible to stem its decline? It won’t be enough, but the marine ecologist thinks passing on his knowledge to a younger generation of researchers is already a first step.

Thanks to advances made in genome sequencing, CNRS researcher Patrick Wincker is looking further and says he hopes to decipher the individual genes of nearly every species in the world in the coming years…” A project that would have seemed unimaginable just a few years ago, and is currently responding to an international desire to push sequencing towards biodiversity analysis. »

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