Research ArticleMARINE ROBOTICS

Revealing ocean-scale biochemical structure with a deep-diving vertical profiling autonomous vehicle

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Science Robotics  25 Nov 2020:
Vol. 5, Issue 48, eabc7104
DOI: 10.1126/scirobotics.abc7104

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Abstract

Vast and diverse microbial communities exist within the ocean. To better understand the global influence of these microorganisms on Earth’s climate, we developed a robot capable of sampling dissolved and particulate seawater biochemistry across ocean basins while still capturing the fine-scale biogeochemical processes therein. Carbon and other nutrients are acquired and released by marine microorganisms as they build and break down organic matter. The scale of the ocean makes these processes globally relevant and, at the same time, challenging to fully characterize. Microbial community composition and ocean biochemistry vary across multiple physical scales up to that of the ocean basins. Other autonomous underwater vehicles are optimized for moving continuously and, primarily, horizontally through the ocean. In contrast, Clio, the robot that we describe, is designed to efficiently and precisely move vertically through the ocean, drift laterally in a Lagrangian manner to better observe water masses, and integrate with research vessel operations to map large horizontal scales to a depth of 6000 meters. We present results that show how Clio conducts high-resolution sensor surveys and sample return missions, including a mapping of 1144 kilometers of the Sargasso Sea to a depth of 1000 meters. We further show how the samples obtain filtered biomass from seawater that enable genomic and proteomic measurements not possible through in situ sensing. These results demonstrate a robotic oceanography approach for global-scale surveys of ocean biochemistry.

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