We met with top ecologist, Jesse Ausubel to talk about the process of conducting the first census of marine biodiversity, climate change, organizing large-scale scientific observations, and so much more.
"The information about DNA in one liter of water, one soft drink bottle of refreshment, is equivalent to what you get from sieving with a net, with a giant trawl net, 66 million liters."” – Jesse Ausubel
Top earth scientist Jesse H. Ausubel discusses his role in the first census of marine biodiversity, determining species abundance through filtering ocean-borne DNA, climate change, and his role in organizing large-scale scientific observations. Director of the Program for the Human Environment and senior research associate at The Rockefeller University, chair of the Richard Lounsbery Foundation, and a former executive of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, Ausubel talks with Dr. Jed Macosko, academic director of AcademicInfluence.com and professor of physics at Wake Forest University.
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(Editor’s Note: The following transcript has been lightly edited to improve clarity.)
Jed Macosko: Hi, I’m Dr. Jed Macosko at AcademicInfluence.com and Wake Forest University. And today we have the pleasure of having Professor Jesse Ausubel, coming from New York City to tell us a little bit about how he got interested in his field of study.
So, Professor Ausubel, can you tell us a little bit about how it all got started when you were younger?
Jesse Ausubel: Hi, Jed. I liked geography, maps, globes, atlases, almanacs, very much when I was a boy. I liked math and science. I loved the oceans, so my family spent would summers by the sea, but I wasn’t a person who had a strong sense of vocation. When people asked me what I would be when I grow up, I didn’t have an answer. When I applied to college, I wrote… I said I was undecided about what I would be.
And it was really only my senior year in college when I read an excerpt from a book about supertankers in The New Yorker magazine, that I really said, “Hey, this is really the kind of thing I’m interested in.” And I still, I’d say, wandered around after that for another two or three years.
In graduate school I had a job as a research assistant working for an multidisciplinary group of faculty interested in different problems of the oceans. And as soon as I started doing that work, I was very excited about it and liked it. And finally at age 27 I got my first real job, a fellowship at the National Academy of Sciences funded by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, but not to work on the oceans.
I had submitted an application for the fellowship saying I would work on problems of the oceans, oil spills, which were very much salient at that time. But when I went down to Washington DC in the fall of 1977, the two people who were my assigned mentors said, “Well, many people are working on oil spills and problems of the oceans, but there’s another problem that very few people are interested in that might be important.” And I said, “What’s that?” And they said, “Climate.” And I said, “Well, I don’t really know anything about climate.” They said, “Well, you have two years of this fellowship and you can… You’re supposed to learn and grow.” I disappeared for about six weeks with a lot of articles, reports to read. I came back and, this was again the fall of 1977, and I said, “Well, it seems like everything needs to be explored and analyzed and developed in this field.” So I became, in the late 1970s, one of the first, literally, first handful of people around the world employed full-time, paid a salary to work on the now crazily popular problem of climate change.
Jed: Back then it must have been a completely different emphasis. In fact, I’ve heard that people were worried in the ’70s about some sort of an ice age coming along and people had suggested, “Well, maybe if we burn fossil fuels we’ll be able to stave off the colder temperatures.”
So what was it like back then?
Jesse: In fact, the temperature of Earth went down from about 1940 to the early 1970s, so there was a quite vocal group of people, very respectable professors at the University of Wisconsin and in the Soviet Union and elsewhere, who were concerned about a new ice age, and the early ’70s had some very bad harvests in the Soviet Union. The US sold grain to Canada, as a result, and there were concerns at the… Very legitimate concerns at that time that we were on the road to cooling.
There were also voices based on projections of modeling, not the actual trends, saying, “Well, that could be true in the short run, but over the long run the warming will really be the big problem.” So when I started, I would say it was really quite… There was a very broad spectrum of views. It was not the situation we have today. And of course, there were people who were agnostic as well.
It was really only in the late ’80s that the people very convinced about warming came to dominate the debate. And it was really only in the late ’80s, early ’90s, when actual climatology and data from the records of the atmosphere really began to support the models and the theory.
Jed: And when did you go from those two years of studying climate change and climate science to counting fish? Is how you… What you do now. So how did that all happen?
Jesse: Well, I spent about 10 years, really, with climate as my central interest. And by the late ’80s I felt we’d gone from a situation where climate was a small village and everybody was friendly and interested in attracting new people to a place where the field was very big and competitive and frankly already ugly. And so I felt I had made a contribution, and I had always been interested in the oceans.
The interest in biodiversity had grown enormously in the course of the decade of the 1980s along in parallel with the interest in climate and other environmental problems. And one day in the ’90s, I was sitting with a wonderful colleague, Fred Grassle, in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, the Oceanographic Institution. And I said, “Fred, could you give me a list of all the known forms of life in the ocean?” And he said, “Well, I’d like to, but there is no such list.”
And I said, “How is that possible? People have been interested in marine life for 3000 years. How can there not be a list?” And he said, “Well, the squid people may have a list and the fish people may have a list, and the sponge people may have a list, but in fact, within each group, people are arguing about what there is and they can’t agree to put them together.
And the oceans are very big, so there are actually large parts of the oceans, 90%, 95% that we’ve never surveyed.” So this led to a conversation, the outcome of which was Fred and I said, well, let’s actually try to go out and conduct the first ever global Census of Marine Life and really address the problem very directly, not just do literature reviews, but have thousands of expeditions and thousands of people actually going out using all the methods available, fish finders, acoustic sonars, nets, genetics, all the scuba divers, cameras, and it took us about three years to go from the idea, the vision, to a place where we actually had some more funding and a framework to do it… And then from 2000 to 2010, we conducted the first ever global Census of Marine Life.
And so what would you say was the big finding from those 10 years and from all of your hard work?
Jesse: First, we did discover more than 5000 new forms of life, and we were able to make the first ever list of about 230,000 known forms of marine life, including molluscs and octopus and all sorts of things. So simply, I would say, the catalog of diversity was a very big contribution. The connectivity also was really evident from the sum of the studies.
We were organized into 17 different teams, an Arctic team, an Antarctic team, a seamount team, an abyssal plains team, a coral reefs team. And at the start, it was sort of this, well, if I’m a tuna person and you’re a squid person, I don’t… The squid people would say, well, I don’t really like you tuna people ’cause your animals eat my animals. And I would say there was a lot of isolation, a lot of compartmentalism, and the census itself, I think, created much more unity in the overall field of marine biodiversity, marine ecology, and led to many findings of importance about relatedness, interconnectedness, interdependence.
Jed: And so has there been continued sort of camaraderie after 2010, and has this spilled over into further projects for the ocean and perhaps also a model for doing census, censes, whatever you call them, in other areas like a land census of land animals or something like that?
Jesse: People have been interested since the mid-1980s in doing what are called all-taxa biological inventories. Sometimes people will say, from ridges, mountain ridges to reefs and into the deep sea. So our Census of Marine Life was part of this movement to try to assess the planet’s biodiversity as a whole, and to contribute to a better sense of whether there are 1 million or 10 million or 100 million forms of life on the planet that earn a Latin binomial, like Homo sapiens, for different species.
The Census of Marine Life itself left a strong legacy of communities of… For example, the community of people who give cellphones to animals that tag and track animals, and we did fantastic mapping of the movements of animals, the animals are amazingly cosmopolitan.
In fact, a tuna will swim from the Caribbean, from Cuba to Sicily, or from Florida to Norway, or a seabird will fly from New Zealand to Alaska. So we did a tremendous job, for example, with that.
In general, we did well with the distributions, the movements, and we did well with the diversity, but in the original census, we had a lot of trouble with abundance, of how many of each species or how many kilos of each species there are.
And just now in 2020 I think we’re finally seeing the way forward in that, and my own group here at Rockefeller University, led by a fantastic geneticist, Mark Stoeckle, we’ve been very active in developing techniques, sieving DNA from sea water, loose DNA, environmental DNA or extracellular DNA, eDNA. When animals swim… If you swim in the ocean or your daughter swims in the ocean, you’ll shed DNA, if we got a lot of it, we might be able to say it’s Jed or Jed’s daughter, Karina, but if we get just a tiny bit, we can say it’s a Homo sapiens.
So we’ve known about this loose DNA for a long time, but we didn’t have a reference library. And in the Census of Marine Life and since then we’ve built up the reference library in Gen Bank and the other genetic databases of the different forms of life, and as a result, we can now sieve the DNA and compare it, let’s say, for fishes against that database and make good matches.
The amazing thing, which we will, Mark and our colleagues will publish in the next month or so, the paper has been accepted for publication in the Journal of Marine Science, is that the number of pieces of DNA in the water also correspond to the kilos or biomass of the fishes.
So if there are a lot of little pieces of bluefish, it means there are a lot of kilos of bluefish, or if there are a lot of anchovies, there are a lot of… A lot of anchovy DNA, a lot of anchovy fish. If there are just a little bit of sturgeon, it means there may be a lonely surgeon. So this… One, the information about DNA in one liter of water, one soft drink bottle of refreshment is equivalent to what you get from sieving with a net, with a giant trawl net, 66 million liters. That’s like a football stadium up to the level of the top of the goal posts, one to 66 million.
So that means we can go out and take lots of samples, collect a lot of liters of water, put them through a filter and sort of squeeze the water through like a big hypodermic needle, you’re left with a filter with some sediment, get the DNA out of that sediment, compare it to the database. So we think in the next decade, the abundance question can finally be addressed thanks to genomics together with, of course, still acoustics and optics trawls, because each method has its strengths and special richness.
Jed: That is so fascinating.
And what would you say is therefore your biggest contribution from the beginning of your career until the end? Since you’ve worked on a number of different things, what do you think that people know you the most for?
Jesse: I spend about half of my time as a working stiff, as an analyst and writing papers and responding to reviews, and doing all the regular work that leads to publications, technical publications. But I’ve spent about half of my career organizing and managing large observational programs.
So a lot of people know me for having designed and organized the World Climate Program, the Global Change Program, more recently the Deep Carbon Observatory, the International Quiet Ocean Experiment. I think I’m a person who’s, on the one hand, continued 43-year career now of making observations and doing analyses and writing up the results, and working in a small group that does that, and then being part of these large global networks of hundreds and thousands of people trying to do observation of the world as it is.
I’m not really an activist or an advocate. I mean, of course, I’m very concerned about penguins or whatever, but really I would say what I’m good at and what I’ve been good at is helping catalyze, organize, conduct these large programs that actually provide the information about the world as it is, “How many fish are there? What’s the temperature? How much carbon is in deep Earth?” those kinds of questions.
Jed: Well, thank you so much for explaining a little bit about your career, it was fascinating, and I really appreciate you taking this time today. Thank you.
Jesse: Jed, thank you and good luck to the new site.
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