Sailboat's journeys reveal ocean of genetic knowledge

Sorcerer II collects microbe samples around the globe

Posted: Monday, July 23, 2007

KETCHIKAN - Dwarfed by an opulent megayacht moored nearby, the 95-foot sailboat Sorcerer II looked beautifully simple in the morning fog alongside the Doyon's Landing dock in Ketchikan.

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Deceptively simple.

In fact, the Sorcerer II is the expedition platform for groundbreaking genetic research being conducted by J. Craig Venter.

He's the renowned physiologist who pushed the successful effort to sequence the human genome essentially the "genetic software code" for human beings which was published in 2001.

He was listed as one of Time Magazine's 100 most influential people for 2007.

Jean-Michel Cousteau wrote the Time story about Venter, and described the scientific results of the Sorcerer II's collection of microbe samples from seawater around the world since 2003.

"The Sorcerer II's journeys have so far yielded a database of 6.3 million genetic base pairs and 1,700 new families of proteins," wrote Cousteau, "not to mention 150 new species of microbes in waters off Bermuda that were once considered a biological desert and the searching and counting is nowhere near complete."

The Sorcerer II arrived in Ketchikan on Monday as part of a continuing effort to collect samples of microbes from new areas.

To date, the Sorcerer II expeditions conducted by the J. Venter Institute of Rockville, Md., with additional major funding by the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation and the U.S. Department of Energy began with a pilot project at the Sargasso Sea in 2003 followed by a global circumnavigation in 2003-2005.

After a substantial refit, the sailboat departed from Virginia in December and passed through the Panama Canal and up the west coast of Central and North America before reaching Ketchikan.

"We'll end in Glacier Bay, then sample all the way down to San Diego," Venter said Tuesday in Ketchikan.

The expedition's scientific protocols require samples to be taken every 200 miles. Samples also are taken from areas of special interest, such as vents on the ocean floor.

It's a sample pattern that echoes the four-year voyage of the H.M.S. Challenger that occurred during the 1870s, according to expedition information.

The Challenger crew used a special line with a trawl, dredge and water bottle to collect samples every 200 miles or so, discovering more than 4,100 new species in the process.

The Sorcerer II voyages are producing evidence of large numbers of previously unknown tiny critters.

Early samples from Sorcerer II's first expedition indicated that 85 percent of each genetic sample was unique to that sample site, according to a documentary film about the voyage, "Cracking the Ocean Code."

And, a tiny bit of seawater contains an immense number of microorganisms.

"There's about 1 million bacteria in one microliter of water and roughly 10 million viruses," Venter said.

The microbes produce much of the oxygen that's present in the atmosphere, he said. Without them, there wouldn't be life as we know it on the planet.

As for seawater, "we never look at it as just water any more," Venter said.

Researchers from the Sorcerer II were flown to the Soule Glacier near Hyder to collect samples from glacier runoff.

Expedition scientist Jeff Hoffman joked that they'd brought everything but bug repellent and suffered the consequences.

Still, he was in good spirits as he showed how the microbe samples are extracted from seawater.

About 400 liters of seawater is pumped aboard the Sorcerer II from the sample site, and the water is cycled through a series of increasingly fine filters located near the aft cockpit.

The finest of the three filters is 0.1 micron, about 1,000 times thinner than a human hair, according to "Cracking the Ocean Code."

After the water has cycled through, Hoffman removes the filters containing the microbes, freezes the filters, and prepares them for shipping to the J. Craig Venter Institute labs in Maryland.

Scientists can observe microbes with the high-powered microscope aboard the vessel, but the genetic work is done in the institute labs.

Hoffman, who also sailed with Sorcerer II during the circumnavigation expedition, said working aboard the sailboat "is the best office in the world."

"It's a lot of travel, but working with Craig is always exciting," Hoffman said. "It's always cutting-edge science."

Venter said the sailboat is "perfect" for the type of sampling that they're doing.

He said the boat was purchased from a previous owner who'd built it for cruising around Australia and New Zealand and doing salvage and work diving.

The 95-foot fiberglass, cutter-rigged sloop was designed by German Frers and built by T.P. Cookson in 1998.

It has a beam of 23 feet, 3 inches, and a minimum draft of 9 feet, 4 inches. There are stateroom accommodations for six persons, and four crew berths.

The Venter Institute and the University of California, San Diego, are partners in a new online database and computation resource - the Community Cyberinfrastructure of Advanced Marine Microbial Ecology Research and Analysis - that helps scientists access and work with data from Sorcerer II's Global Ocean Sampling Expedition.

Venter's work makes for a busy schedule.

"I spend half my time in Rockville, half my time in La Jolla, and half my time in airplanes," he said.

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