Meyer works to remove a piece of rebar drilled into the coral while a quartet of seven-foot lemon sharks cruise like phantoms at the edge of visibility. Two days ago those sharks chased the scientists off this site; today the sharks are placid, but nobody wants to spend more time down here than they have to. We’re out beyond Moorea’s fringing reef recovering three autonomous reef monitoring structures, or ARMS, which were placed about forty feet deep thirteen months earlier. “Autonomous reef monitoring structure” is a fancy name for a simple device: a stack of ten one-squarefoot PVC plates spaced about an inch apart. No moving parts, no complicated electronics and each one fits inside a milk crate. Bolt it to the sea floor, leave it for a while, then come back to see what sort of critters are growing on or hiding in it.
Biologist Chris Meyer
removes an ARMS--an
autonomous reef monitoring
structure--from the reef.
After more than a year of waiting, Meyer’s eager to get the ARMS back to the lab, where they’ll be pulled apart. The “big” stuff will be gingerly brushed into a tray to be sorted by hand. The rest—coral, tunicates, sponges, copepods and whatever else is stuck to the plates—will be scraped into an ordinary kitchen blender.
It’s a big moment in the lab when a member of Meyer’s team, a young French biologist named Matthieu Leray, finally hits the purée button. The resulting tawny, foul-smelling slurry contains the DNA of every living thing scraped from one of the ARMS. The ability to read that DNA en masse constitutes a quantum leap in this kind of science, a technique that makes something as unthinkably grandiose as Biocode not just thinkable but possible. If you analyzed a sample of something as complex as a coral reef by eye alone, you’d miss a lot—extremely tiny things, things that look almost identical, things hiding deep in crevices, things living inside of other things. But if you took that sample, blended it up and “barcoded” it, i.e., sequenced the DNA in the sample, you’d get everything. Suddenly the tree of life would have thousands of leaves you didn’t see before. Until recently it was prohibitively laborious and expensive to barcode large quantities of DNA. Now, thanks to advances in both technology and techniques —some of them pioneered by Biocode scientists —you can blend up a reef smoothie and sequence away till the cows come home.
Biocode represents the first attempt to apply barcoding to the study of ecology. “We’re not looking for a genome,” says Meyer, referring to the term for a single organism’s DNA, “but an ecome,” a new coinage for the total genetic signature of an ecosystem. That quixotic dream is what inspired Neil Davies, the executive director of the Gump Research Station, to float the idea to Craig Venter’s research team. Venter is famous for his work on the Human Genome Project, the first attempt to sequence human DNA completely. In 2004 Venter’s yacht was in Moorea as part of a global effort to document the biodiversity of ocean microbes, and Davies had come aboard. Davies was regarding the rainforest carpeting the improbable spires rising behind Cook’s Bay when the idea struck: “You know, we could sequence the island of Moorea,” Davies said, to the general amusement of everyone who heard him. “No,” he insisted. “We should sequence an island. Wouldn’t that be cool?”
The Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, which funds conservation efforts and scientific research throughout the world, thought it would be cool—cool enough to grant $5.3 million to the attempt. Eight years later, in a lab reeking of formalin and brine, Leray hefts the crowning achievement of that four-year scavenger hunt like a pitcher of margaritas. “Salut!” he toasts.