Challenges – urgent and unforeseen?

We are witnessing an unprecedented rate of change in the global environment, the likely consequences of which are largely unknown. This statement is based on the weight of hard scientific evidence relating to ocean temperature, acidification, destruction of habitats and over-exploitation of resources. Consideration of challenges and opportunities must be made in the context of this changing landscape

Dealing with complexity Why are the oceans important in understanding climate?

Heat and gas transfer between the oceans and atmosphere play a critical role in climate regulation. The melting of polar ice and consequent disruption of ocean circulation patterns has the potential to cause long lasting changes in marine ecosystem structure. The huge complexity of linkages between organisms, processes, communities, trophic levels, and ecosystems ensures that it is difficult, often impossible, to study a single environmental factor in isolation. Indeed, understanding connectivity and complexity at a vast range of scales, from viruses to multicellular organisms and their complex interactions at the ecosystem level, is arguably the most momentous challenge in marine biology. The problem is compounded by the need for simplification in order to develop quantitative models of ecosystem processes. How can we begin to integrate fragmentary information from laboratory experiments with larger scale in situ studies of complex processes? The advent of ’omics approaches, coupled with detailed physical and chemical metadata is increasingly allowing “who does what” studies to be applied to marine ecosystems.

More data than we can handle?

Collecting large volumes of data in many different forms, including physical, chemical, telemetry, imaging and ’omics to list a few examples, has become the norm. Curating, analysing and distributing vast amounts of data has itself become a major challenge, requiring resources that are not widely available. Major drivers of ecosystem change in the seas include temperature, acidification and hypoxia. These in turn affect a host of other parameters. It is clear that stressors do not act in isolation and consideration of the combined impacts of multiple stressors will be required to understand how regimes may shift to new stable or unstable states. Identifying and monitoring key sensitive ecosystems, such as those associated with coral reefs and polar regions, and co-ordinating data through networks of observatories, including long-term time series and archives will become ever more critical.

Responses to change

We also face the problem of trying to predict impacts whilst having insufficient knowledge of basic life processes. There is increasing evidence that extreme short term events can have profound and long lasting impacts on coastal and reef marine ecosystems (see article on marine heat waves, page 12). Current evidence suggests that such extreme events are likely to occur with increasing frequency as global temperatures increase. The ability to tolerate rapid extremes of temperature (both behaviourally and physiologically) may be one of the most important factors that will determine survival and community composition in the short term. It is therefore critical to understand the roles of short-term physiological responses and plasticity that will determine responses of key vulnerable ecosystems to change.

Changes in the genetic structure of populations is fundamental to longer term responses, over decadal or centennial timescales, of populations and communities. Our knowledge of genetic diversity and understanding of key evolutionary drivers is only rudimentary for most marine organisms. The bulk of marine productivity is brought about by the phytoplankton. These microbial populations have very short generation times, massive population sizes and limited barriers to geographical spread, all of which make them likely to be more resilient to climate change in comparison with many larger organisms.

Opportunities for the future

Clearly, there is important work to be done, however, marine science has already achieved much in terms of fundamental scientific advances, in providing knowledge that may underpin sustainable use of marine resources, and in the discovery of new resources and products.

We have made impressive advances in understanding the basic biology, behaviour and underlying principles that determine abundance and distribution of populations. This knowledge not only helps us to understand the impacts of rapidly spreading invasive species on ecosystem biodiversity, it is also vital to develop fishing strategies for long term sustainability. We have the opportunity to implement marine protected areas that will further ensure ecosystem stability and provide nursery grounds for young fish populations.

From model organisms to a biotechnological revolution: risks and opportunities

The seas also present enormous potential for scientific, economic and social advance. Historically, marine organisms have provided many key models for the study of cell biology and evolutionary processes, with many potential biomedical and biotechnological applications. Examples include modern comparative biology, driven by the rich resources of the marine biota, and underpinned by long-standing classical taxonomy. The rapid march of whole genome sequencing projects is heralding a new era of functional and comparative genomics studies that will substantially improve our knowledge of basic biological mechanisms and their evolution. What is needed to realise the potential of marine organisms for biotechnological advances? A recent European Marine Board position paper1 identified target areas for development with a particular emphasis on biotechnological potential. Amongst these are: systematic sampling and genomic analysis of microorganisms, algae and metazoans; development of new technologies for culture of marine organisms; improvements in bioreactor technology; and identification of new model organisms.

But without adequate investment in infrastructure, the foundation for these advances is at risk. Fostering international networks and infrastructures is vital to ensure that opportunities for collaboration at the boundaries between disciplines – essential for major advances in technology, modelling and understanding processes – are maximised (see article on the European Marine Biological Resource Centre, page 32).

Society needs the knowledge gained through marine biology. A significant challenge for the marine biological community is to communicate this with some urgency at national and international levels in order to ensure support for the major undertakings required.


Professor Colin Brownlee is the Director of the Marine Biological Association