UM in Antarctica with Greenpeace

Greenpeace, the world's most powerful environmental organization, has called on MARBEC, UM's marine biology laboratory, to take part in a mission to Antarctica from January 5 to February 13 aboard theArctic Sunrise. This is a first for the university, which, thanks to the know-how and expertise of its scientists, will undoubtedly help to safeguard one of our planet's last marine refuges.

"It's a unique opportunity to observe the biodiversity of Antarctica and to take action to implement a real policy for preserving the poles," enthuses David Mouillot, professor at the University of Montpellier's marine biology laboratory (MARBEC) and the mission's coordinator.
From January 5 to February 13, Nacim Guellati, UM student and MARBEC intern, will join Greenpeace for the final leg of its great pole-to-pole expedition. "It's an event with enormous scientific and media impact, and one that will help raise the profile of our university," adds Guellati.

Environmental DNA

MARBEC owes this unique opportunity to its collaboration with SpyGen (see box), recently awarded the Companies on Campus label by the MUSE iSite. The environmental DNA technique makes it possible to collect DNA fragments left by organisms in the water, revealing the presence of species previously invisible to researchers. Mediterranean, Pacific, Atlantic... MARBEC researchers have been filtering water from all the world's seas for 2 years. All that was missing was Antarctica.

"Our hypothesis is that, with global warming and the pressure of industrial fishing, new species are finding refuge in Antarctica, particularly during the summer months," explains David Mouillot. This new migratory behavior has been observed in mammals, sharks and several fish species.

New refuge zone

Far from being good news, such a development, if confirmed, would not only be a further warning signal of the poor health of our oceans, but also the harbinger of a new threat. "If Antarctica proves to be a climatic refuge for marine biodiversity, as we believe it is, it will clearly become a target for future extractions. Protective measures are urgently needed," warns the biologist.

Today, only 2% of Antarctica is protected, leaving almost the entire continent at the mercy of the fishing and energy industries, or of a new mass tourism industry which, with the melting of the ice and the opening of new sea routes, could begin to develop. A context that makes data collection and analysis by the scientific community all the more urgent.

Urgent need for protection

Nacim Guellati, a bachelor's student at the UM, will be embarking on board theArctic Sunrise - and not on board the Esperanza, another Greenpeace vessel, as initially planned - to carry out these first DNA samples in Antarctica. A mission whose political significance was not lost on the young man: "UN member states are currently negotiating a treaty on ocean protection. It is imperative that our results be used to create marine reserves in Antarctica to protect this heritage.

During these seven weeks in Antarctica, Nacim will be filtering water four or five hours a day aboard a zodiac. The filters will then be stored and analyzed by MARBEC and SpyGen researchers. This is a very demanding mission, requiring great physical and mental capacities," explains his supervisor. Nacim has been working with us for two years, and has amply demonstrated his seriousness and ability to adapt. We have total confidence in him, and we'll be in constant contact throughout the mission, so that together we can make the most critical decisions."

Trusting students

At just 22, Nacim will be the first UM student to take part in a mission organized by Greenpeace. A great springboard for his future career, which David Mouillot is delighted to see: "It's vital to train the younger generation and show that the University of Montpellier has confidence in them, in a context where students sometimes lack prospects and ambition, it's a real signal given to young people.

For the duration of the expedition, the young biologist will share his experience with the general public by sending daily messages and videos, which the university will relay via social networks. Hopefully, this mission will be more than just a drop in the ocean!

SpyGen or the success story of Companies on Campus

Through SpyGen, the University of Montpellier and MARBEC were associated with the expedition organized by Greenpeace. A pioneer in the field of environmental DNA analysis, SpyGen set up on campus as part of the "Companies on Campus" call for projects launched by MUSE. The aim of this initiative is to encourage the development of partnerships between research units within the MUSE perimeter and companies, by facilitating the location of their staff directly in the research units. " The collaboration with SpyGen has enabled MARBEC to benefit from theenvironmental DNA technique with which we have been working for several years now," explains David Mouillot. Contacted by Greenpeace, the company then approached MARBEC with this proposal. A fine illustration of the influence and opportunities that such partnerships with the business world bring to the university.

Paul Hilton