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Molecular mapping of coral reef diversity

Ship-based expedition uncovers the diversity of Pacific Ocean coral reefs

by Laura Howes
June 1, 2023 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 101, Issue 18


Macro photography of a Lobophyllia coral
Credit: Pete West/BioQuest Studios/Tara Ocean Foundation
Lobe coral were one of the coral species sampled during the Tara Pacific Expedition

After two years of preparation, two and a half years at sea, and six years of sample analysis, this week a raft of papers have been published describing the array of microbial life in the coal reefs of the Pacific Ocean (collected online at The molecular data captured provides a snapshot of the diversity of coral microbiomes in the Pacific Ocean and suggests that the diversity within these ocean colonies has been significantly underestimated, say the researchers.

The samples were taken during the Tara Pacific Expedition, which navigated around the Pacific Ocean between 2016 and 2018. The ship, which is used specifically for scientific ocean expeditions, traveled from Panama to Portland via New Zealand and the Philippines with a crew of scientists that took samples along the way. In total, over 100 scientists contributed to the effort, not just collecting samples on the boat but then sequencing them back on land to uncover the genetic diversity of what they found. The results include 2.87 billion genetic sequences mapped by location and environment, as well as information about the coral species themselves.

On a call with reporters, Serge Planes of the Centre de Recherche Insulaire et Observatoire de l’Environnement (CRIOBE) described the importance of the project for understanding the ecosystems of different coral reefs. Especially, he added, as those reefs are “ecosystems under crisis” in the Anthropocene.

A map showing the expedition's route.
Credit: Tara Pacific
In total, the expedition sampled life within 32 Pacific island systems between 2016 and 2018.


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