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Conservation Through Genetics: Introducing the Marine Genome Project

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Photos courtesy of Marine Genome Project
The image shows a tissue sample of red algae after homogenization to release the DNA from the supernantent
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The Marine Genome Project (MGP) is a nonprofit organization founded by two avid divers Daniel Ortega and David Mulé with a desire to promote ocean conservation. MGP’s mission is to collect genetic information from marine organisms with the intention of creating science-based educational resources.  MGP plans on achieving this by creating an open source system to aid in preservation projects that spread  awareness about the fragility of marine species and the ecosystems they inhabit. 

Daniel Ortega Cave Diving in Tulum.

Daniel Ortega is in his early twenties. He grew up spending endless hours begging his parents to let him learn how to scuba dive. Like many children figure out at a young age, if he was persistent in bugging his parents, they would eventually give in to the demands. Even if it was just to get him to finally shut up about scuba diving. Daniel got certified at the age of 12 and has been diving ever since, he’s been working full time in the diving industry for 4 years. He currently holds numerous recreational, teaching, and technical diving qualifications including GUE Tech 1 and Cave 1. Daniel has been passionately dedicated to protecting the underwater environment from a young age, and this is what sparked his desire to start The Marine Genome Project (MGP) which is dedicated to protecting the ocean and the species that live within for years to come.

Daniel couldn’t have started The Marine Genome Project without his friend and fellow GUE Tech 1 and Cave 1 teammate, Dave Mulé. As one of the founders of The Marine Genome Project, Dave’s work has been crucial in guiding its behind-the-scenes infrastructure. As a practicing lawyer and avid diver, his talents have been well suited to building MGP’s support structures. 

David Mulé.

The duo have talked about what their future in diving would look like for years. They tossed around the idea of everything from opening their own dive shop, to buying a vessel to turn into a research diving vessel. While years ago they didn’t have the idea that you see today, one thing was for sure: it was going to involve diving and protecting their favorite place on earth, the ocean.

After a few years, the team settled on starting MGP. Daniel noticed two common factors that he felt were lacking in some of the other major organizations dedicated to ocean conservation.  First, was the lack of transparency in the conducted research and how the data was being used to help marine ecosystems. Daniel is a firm believer in the philosophy that if you can’t understand the solution, you can’t understand the problem.  The second factor was the lack of community involvement. Many major organizations are not efficient at involving the community in their work.  MGP believes in actively involving communities in every step of its mission and scientific process. 

MGP wants everybody to understand and appreciate how genetics can be used as a vital tool for marine conservation.  Although science may seem confusing to many, it does not have to be that way. Genetics in simple terms is the study of genes and genetic variation of organisms. The field of genetics is often confusing and misunderstood by those who are not trained in the field; but, as Daniel would say “if I can do it, you can do it.”

To allow our communities to better participate, MGP started a page on its website called the “Science Spot.” The page breaks down the scientific methods and procedures used by our research team into bite sized chunks. The team wanted to lower the barrier of entry into science and marine preservation work. On this page people can learn everything from what genetic information is to how it is collected. 



Let’s talk about the geeky side of our mission. DNA is the instructions determining what an organism might look like, what it might eat, how long it might live, and other vital information. DNA is made up of a five carbon sugar phosphate group with a nitrogenous base made up of nucleotides. The nucleotides in DNA are A,T,G,C. These Nucleotides pair together to form a base pair. The nucleotides follow rules, such as, A pairs only to T and G pairs only to C, except in RNA then A pairs to U which substitutes in place of T. The ordered reading of these base pairs is what allows us to see how an organism’s cell would function. 

The photo shows a run of DNA extracted from marine algae, in a visualization process called Gel Electrophoresis. Sometimes the runs don’t turn out great, as extracting viable DNA from plants is notoriously difficult as seen by the smearing and damaged DNA.

Now that we have a basic understanding of what DNA is, we need to learn how to visualize it. Visualizing DNA used to be extremely difficult. The machines would take up half a room, run for months on end, and cost exorbitant amounts of money. With the passing of time, things have changed; whole genomes can be sequenced in the field and with devices as big as your mobile phone. One that we use is a Nanopore sequencer. It works by using a flow cell with many little microscopic holes in it which sits in an electro-resistant membrane attached to electrodes. When these nucleotides pass through the nanopore membrane, the current in the membrane is distrusted, creating an electrical reading. This reading is then translated to the corresponding nucleotides. 

This information can then be read and compared to known sequences to detect changes in nucleotide sequences. This can help researchers better understand the effects of external environmental stressors on the heritability of genes among other uses. With the collected information MGP is able to provide data supporting potential detrimental damage to marine environments, with possible avenues that can be pressured for solutions.

With the fast pace changes we are seeing in science and technology, we now have more tools at our fingertips for protecting our underwater world. At the end of the day, the idea behind MGP was to bring a mutual respect and love for the environment to the general public. When we can respect and love something we are more willing to protect it. The Marine Genome Project team would like to encourage everybody to get involved in your community in protecting the sites that we cherish everyday, so others can cherish the sites tomorrow. 

For more information see: Marine Genome Project (MGP)

The eventual goal for MGP is to move into collecting tissue samples of marine vertebrates such as the French Grunts seen above. These vertebrate species can give us valuable insights into the overall health of the ecosystem, and provide possible tracking metrics for measuring changes in the ecosystem due to external stressors.

Cave

Diving Into The Famous Ressel Cave

Belgium service member, cave explorer and tech instructor Kurt Storms takes us for a dive into the Ressel cave system located in Lot. Get out your reels.

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By Kurt Storms. Photos courtesy of K. Storms unless noted.

The Lot and The Dordogne areas of France have an abundance of beautiful caves suitable for all levels of diving expertise, situated in glorious rural locations. Sites are mostly found on three rivers: The Dordogne, The Lot, and Célé. The Lot area lies in the northern extremity of the Midi-Pyrenees region, which stretches from the confines of the Dordogne Valley to the highest peaks of the Pyrenees, forming the heart of South-West France. Cave divers from all over the world return to dive here year after year. With over 20,000 known caves, France is one of the premier cave diving areas in the world. One of the most interesting regions lies in the Southwest, around the rivers of Lot and Dordogne. Here you find a multitude of long and deep caves with mostly crystal clear and relatively warm water, offering superb diving conditions. The water temperature averages 14º C/57º F and the visibility normally varies between 5-30 m/15-100 ft.

Finally!!! We can go to the Lot again. The COVID conditions have thrown a spanner in the works. But because we are all now vaccinated, we can finally leave. This time, for a week of training and then a week of diving holiday with my wife Caroline Massie. Two students (Jo Croimans and Bram Van Gorp) are with me for the training. The next few days, they will be busy with skills and dry teaching. Theory has already been given in Belgium so that we can get the most out of our dives. 

Why the Lot?

The area in France is popular because most European divers take cave classes there so they don’t have to travel to Mexico or Florida. One of the most famous caves around here is Ressel. Ressel is located in the village of Marcilhac-sur-Célé, in the heart of the Lot. Most pictures you can see online show huge, dramatic  blocks of white rock, flat structures, and the shafts of this cave. The facilities are pleasant, we have a large parking area for our cars, and finally there is also a conveniently located building with a toilet. From the car park we have only to walk about 100 m/330 ft to get to the entry point on the River Celé where we can put all our equipment needed for our dive.

Ressel History

The Ressel was first dived in 1968, by two divers of the speleo club Auvergnat. Martin and Debras reached 150 m/492 ft. It was only in 1973 that the line was extended to 300 m/984 ft, with a maximum depth of 30 m/100 ft. In 1975, Fantoli and Touloumdoian reached Pit 4 and went to a depth of 45 m/147 ft. Further exploration continued over the years, especially by Jochem Hasemayer in the early 1980s, where at 1100 m/3609 ft into the system he planted his knife in the rock to which he attached his line. This knife is still there.

On August 12, 1990, Olivier Isler was the first to cross Sump 1. The total dive time back and forth was 10 h 35 min. End of Siphon 1 is at Lac Isler, and from there on you can continue to the next siphons. Ressel consists of 5 sumps, of which siphon 1 is the longest (1850 m/6070 ft) and the deepest (83 m/272 ft). From Pit 4 onwards, the deep section begins, which can only be done with trimix mixtures. In the following years, the further sumps were explored by gentlemen like Rick Stanton, Martin Farr, and Jason Mallison. In 1999, the end of Sump 5 was reached. The total length on the main line is 4415 m/14,485 ft.

Spectacular Views In The First Section

To be honest, the visibility is spectacular all around. More than 10 m/33 ft visibility, which was near zero before the start in the Celé River—quite a change. As soon as we got to the entrance, the water cleared like snow in the sun. The first thought that ever crossed my mind was: How on earth did they find this cave? How, with the visibility of the river, did anyone see a hole that is 6 m/20 ft below the surface on one side—which is frankly not that big. Enquiries with the locals revealed that when the cave is full of water, you can even see a geyser in the river! Another impressive detail. 

There is a rope that runs from the point where you get all the way into the cave, and it continues to the main line; you don’t need a primary reel here—it’s really easy to find the entrance, at 6 m/20 ft deep. Then there is a huge tunnel with white giant boulders, which is impressive.

The first dives were only up to the T (180 m/591 ft penetration), where the obligatory skills were practiced, so that later one can widen the comfort zone. This is also a very beautiful part, especially because of the large blocks that lie here. There are even two exceptional phenomena visible; these are two blocks consisting of white limestone, with a large black spot in it. You won’t find these black spots anywhere else. It is wonderful to be able to admire nature like this.

My wife, the students, and I got in, and on the first dive, with a sidemount set consisting of 2×80 cf (dual 11 ltr) tanks, we did the first T, taking the left corridor. On the next T, we continued toward the shaft to a maximum depth of 30 m/98 ft to take a look. It is so impressive! We felt like we were going to the abyss, and actually we were, to the abyss below ground and underwater. But now they were even more curious about the famous Pit 4 of the Ressel.

To be able to do this dive, we had to bring the right amount of gases. The first dive was with Jo Croimans, my student; he had his sidemount configuration with an extra 7 ltr along, I dived with my Divesoft Liberty SM rebreather. There we went, all prepared. The way there is about a 28 minute dive. On the way, I showed Jo the shunt that goes to the deeper part of the first loop. Enjoying the ride, we continued until we reached the point of the shaft. 



Here I asked Jo if everything was Okay, he indicated that it was, and we descended to a depth of about 40 m/131 ft. I could see in Jo’s eyes that he was enjoying himself. But we didn’t have much time to enjoy ourselves, because we had to go back again. If you have deco, you can do it all on the way back on a nitrox 50 (NX50). For the advanced divers, you can take your oxygen at 6 m/20 ft and finish any decompression on O2.

It’s actually a great dive, and the cave allows for a variety of dives, just by choosing different depths in the tunnels, to have different perspectives.

Once we got to the top, Jo couldn’t stop exclaiming about the amazing beauty of this cave, and especially Pit 4. This made Caroline want to go and have a look too. This dive was done a few days later, when both gentlemen had gone home. This time we did the dive by scooter, a big difference. In 13 minutes we were at the shaft, and again I saw a happy face. How nice it is as an instructor to be able to pass on your passion. This is what we do it for. Ressel is one of the most beautiful caves in Europe. It remains an easy, accessible system.

The Ressel is and will always remain a special cave. Last year, I did the deep loop (1160 m/3806 ft long, 73 m/240 ft depth) here with two friends. And I still enjoy it when I talk about it. We still have to come back to do the rest of S1.

Additional Resources:

X-Ray: Pushing the Ressel—A Cave Diving Expedition in Lot, France by Erik Wouters (2013)

YouTube: Cave diving in France: Emergence du Ressel (2016)

Facebook: Here is a cave exploration project also going on nearby in Lot, France https://m.facebook.com/thehiddenriverproject. Find their map: here. 


Kurt Storms is a member of the Belgium military, and is an underwater cave explorer and active technical/cave/rebreather diving instructor for IANTD. He started his diving career in Egypt when he was on vacation, and the passion never ended. Kurt is also founder and CEO of Descent Technical Diving.  He’s diving on several CCRs such as AP, SF2, Divesoft Liberty SM.

Kurt is also one of the pushdivers that is documenting a new slate mine in Belgium (Laplet). This project was news on Belgium Nationale TV. Most of his dives are mine and cave dives.  In his own personal diving, Kurt’s true passions are deep extended-range cave dives. His wife (Caroline) is also a passionate cave diver. In his free time he explores Belgium’s slatemines. When he is not exploring, he takes his camera with him, to document the dives.

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