Quest to shed light on ocean

Feng Zengkun The Straits Times AsiaOne 24 Jun 14;

SINGAPORE - Five Singapore scientists on a sailboat have helped make global history.

The team sailed into the Singapore Strait yesterday to collect marine samples for the first-ever Ocean Sampling Day.

The annual international campaign - which involved scientists at more than 160 sites across the world - aims to collect information on the world's oceans and their organisms, such as the waters' temperatures and salinity, and the roles of its living creatures.

The wealth of data will be shared publicly and allow researchers to better study a wide range of topics, from the waters' relationship to climate change, to when tuna stocks may run out.

The Singapore team was led by former Italian national sailor Federico Lauro, who is now an associate professor at the Nanyang Technological University (NTU) Singapore Centre on Environmental Life Sciences Engineering (Scelse).

The other four scientists are from Scelse and NTU's Earth Observatory of Singapore. They were joined by Dr Lauro's wife Rachelle, who handled the expedition's communications with the Maritime and Port Authority of Singapore.

The team had selected three sampling sites with the authority's help.

The expedition started at 9am and finished about seven hours later, with 50 litres of water collected from two sites.

The water was filtered through cartridges that retained biological organisms, from tiny phytoplankton to even smaller bacteria. One drop of ocean water contains millions of micro-organisms.

One set of cartridges will be sent to European research centres for analysis, and preserved in the United States's Smithsonian Institution, the world's largest museum and research complex.

"This will allow future generations, even decades from now, to see what the oceans were like now," said Dr Lauro.

He added that the team will keep another set of cartridges for its own research: "We have machines that can break the cells apart, analyse their components, and then piece them together again like jigsaw puzzles so we know what goes where."

The scientists can then study the parts' functions and extrapolate this to, say, figure out how much carbon dioxide the Strait absorbs. The data can also help determine Singapore's coastal waters' health.

"There's so much about the oceans that we don't know," said Dr Lauro. "This will help us to learn a little - or a lot - more."