The Breathtaking Discoveries Of Sorcerer II

Genome pioneer Craig Venter unveils a microbial universe in the seas.

Jonathan Zawada for Noema Magazine

Nathan Gardels is the editor-in-chief of Noema Magazine.

Back in the 1960s and early 70s, at the height of the space race when Americans were reaching for the moon, French oceanographer Jacques Cousteau was exploring that other universe of the seas on his vessel, Calypso. With goggles, cameras and his pioneering aqualung gear, Cousteau opened fascinating new vistas into largely unfamiliar realms of the blue planet.

Craig Venter, the pioneering cartographer of the human genome and co-creator of the first synthetic minimal cell, has gone deeper into the previously unknown by plumbing the shallows, collecting samplings of the sea near the surface. In essence, his method turned a line from the poet Kahlil Gibran about a whole ocean contained in one drop into a scientific expedition.

Armed not with scuba gear but gene-sequencing technology, he and his team on the Sorcerer II set out, like Charles Darwin before him, as “discovery scientists” seeking to find out empirically what is out there instead of positing a hypothesis and trying to prove or disprove it in lab experiments.

“Reports were that there was a very low diversity of life in the oceans,” he says in an interview in Noema this week. “Up until DNA sequencing, the way we discovered new microbes was by looking for them under the microscope or growing them in culture. But basically, if they couldn’t be grown in a lab culture, they were deemed virtually not to exist. Because of our limited tools, we were missing probably 99% of the biology of our planet.”

What his team found, astonishingly, is that every 200 miles where they took a barrel of seawater, 80% of the sequences were unique. “The diversity is incredible. We discovered far more organisms in the ocean than there are stars and planets in the universe! Yet, we know we are only scratching the surface, even with the tens of millions of organisms we discovered at these sailing intervals.”

By filtering the seawater through several layers to collect everything from the tiniest viruses to microbes, Venter’s team isolated all the DNA and RNA and sequenced the genomes. “Our first surprising discovery,” he reports, “was that thousands of organisms dwelt in just one small extraction of seawater. In just one barrel from the Sargasso Sea, we came up with over 2,000 species, 148 of which had never been seen before. We stopped sequencing at 1.4 million new genes just from one sample of seawater from the ocean.”

Anthropocene And Planet Microbe

Paradoxically, it is the highly advanced capacity of Anthropocene computation tools like AI behind gene sequencing that are unveiling the humbling reality that we humans are not the center of it all but one small part, not least as hosts, within an ecosystem that makes life possible on “planet microbe.”

The holy grail for synthetic biology beckoning on the other side of these discoveries is unlocking the secret of how primordial life in the seas came into being and evolved into ever-higher forms of intelligence.

Yet, as Venter points out, his literally breathtaking discoveries also reveal the threat our Anthropocene footprint poses to the planetary ecosystem.

“These organisms produce about 50% of the oxygen that we breathe, so to survive we need to preserve that environmental resource,” he warns. “Changing the ocean temperature by only one degree can kill off certain types of bacteria that make life on the planet Earth livable. That’s why in the Seychelles, you have all these white sandy beaches. They look beautiful, except when you understand where they came from — coral reefs dying from warming seas that are killing off key symbiotic bacteria that kept the coral alive. What we are learning is that we are changing our environment to the detriment of the conditions necessary for survival.

Everybody’s worried about the sea level rise from climate change. That is certainly going to be important. But far worse will happen if we wipe out the producers of oxygen, as we see with these huge areas the size of the United States or Africa with no oxygen in them at all, dead zones in the ocean plus several-mile-wide islands of plastic that we sailed through.

We discovered massive life we hadn’t known about during our expedition. But we also discovered how important that life is for our existence and how we are damaging it.”

Here the genetic scientist echoes Cousteau’s alarming realization from the limited perceptions of his own explorations. As the then 85-year-old oceanographer told me in Paris almost three decades ago:

In my lifetime, we have already depleted the sea.

When I began diving, all marine food — shellfish as well as saltwater and freshwater fish — represented one-tenth of the protein consumption in the world. And we were at that time only 1.7 billion people. Today the fishing industry has become very sophisticated and efficient. Schools of fish can be tracked electronically; we know when and where fish are spawning year in and year out. But there are now more than 5 billion people to feed.

The result is that the percentage of all the catch of the world is only 3% of protein consumption of humankind. And it will go to 2%, then 1% and then disappear altogether as we move toward the 10 billion mark. We will have exhausted the production capacity of the sea.

Late in his life, Cousteau became quite radical, pinning the blame on overconsumption driven by what he called “the market system.” “As we are living it today, [it] is doing more damage to the planet than anything else because everything has a price but nothing has value. Since the long term has no price in today’s market, the fate of future generations is not considered in the economic equation. … Money is a wonderful tool of exchange, but it is a terrible danger for the planet. What the market today produces is retail sanity but wholesale madness.”

Unbeknownst to Cousteau, who could only see through his underwater goggles, Venter’s discoveries have disclosed teeming life in what appeared to be a depleted sea. But as both Cousteau and Venter have clearly grasped, the more we understand the web of life, the more we must become aware of our human responsibility within it.