Racing Sailors Pick Up Parasite eDNA in Warm Water Samples

The boat that won The Ocean Race gathered bacteria and parasite specimens that offer new insights into the dangers of warming seas.

(Bloomberg) — The team that won this year’s The Ocean Race, one of the most grueling round-the-world sailing competitions, has a bit more to show for their victory. The sailors collected environmental DNA — for the first time during a race — bringing new sources of data to scientists trying to understand how this year’s record hot oceans are impacting marine life.

The 11th Hour Racing Team took 27 water samples over April and May during a 5,550-nautical-mile leg of the competition, covering a stretch of sea from Itajai, Brazil to Newport, Rhode Island.

When New Zealand’s Cawthron Institute analyzed those samples, it found the greatest abundance of bacteria such as pseudomonas — known to break down plastic — at lower latitudes near Brazil’s coastline. The analysis also found higher amounts of parasitic bacteria that can be threatening to humans in areas nearer to land. That bacteria is also strongly associated with higher sea surface temperatures.

While data from a single boat isn’t enough to make sweeping conclusions, data like this could be used as part of wider studies of the geographical spread of marine plastic pollution, rising ocean temperatures and harmful parasite populations. Oceans are facing increasing stress from these and other factors, and conservationists are working to understand the impacts as well as how to protect marine life.

“We’re very excited about the data collected during The Ocean Race, particularly those linked with pathogens and plastic degraders,” Xavier Pochon, team leader of molecular surveillance at the Cawthron Institute, said in a statement. “These are interesting findings because very little is known about their distribution and ecology across large latitudinal gradients.”

Round-the-world racing boats have become increasingly useful for gathering oceanic data due to their ability to take samples from locations that vessels rarely, if ever, traverse. Unlike taking traditional DNA samples, eDNA, which functions as a type of fingerprint for nature, can be collected with much less invasive measures. During the Ocean Race, equipment on 11th Hour’s ship collected seawater and passed it through specialized eDNA filters.And while heavy equipment could slow down a boat, the 11th Hour Racing Team persevered. They edged out the runner-up by three points, becoming the first US-flagged boat to win the 32,000-nautical-mile race. 

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