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Network of leading MESOcosm facilities to advance the studies of future AQUAtic ecosystems from the Arctic to the Mediterranean

Final Report Summary - MESOAQUA (Network of leading MESOcosm facilities to advance the studies of future AQUAtic ecosystems from the Arctic to the Mediterranean)

Executive Summary:
Ocean acidification, temperature increase, pollution and invasive species are affecting marine ecosystems from which depends the food security of many millions of people. Because the planktonic food web is the base of all the other higher trophic compartments, there is an urgent need to understand its functioning and its role in producing food in a changing world. This cannot be achieved only inside the laboratory but scientists need tools allowing experimental approach to near-natural pelagic systems. Mesocosms are reservoirs that enclose a volume of water which can be manipulated to modify its biological physical and chemical characteristics. They therefore allow study of the effects that increased temperature, increased acidity, pollutants and invasive species, exerts on the aquatic microorganisms.
The mesocosm approach is only about 30 years old, but has rapidly gained momentum. It has now become an indispensable tool for ecosystem research with a strong impact on a variety of sub-disciplines. However, due to its youth, mesocosm research as a discipline lacks the long traditions in methods and teaching that are established for traditional laboratory and field work. Moreover, because of their relatively high cost, these infrastructures had only been developed in a limited number of facilities around the world resulting in limited transfer of know-how, data and training between them.
To tackle this problem, the FP7 project MESOAQUA (2009-2012), established the first international network of marine mesocosm facilities. It had 6 partners throughout Europe, from the high Arctic to the South East Mediterranean (http://mesoaqua.eu/). Since its beginning MESOAQUA worked actively to improve exchange of technology, experience, cross-disciplinary fertilisation, transnational network building and coordination of mesocosm research, as well as training young scientists.
During these four years MESOAQUA offered to more than 150 European and not-European marine scientists, access to its mesocosm facilities where they were leading or contributing to a total of 23 different cooperative international mesocosm experiments.
The establishment of a network enabled all partners to benefit from each other’s expertise. In particular MESOAQUA advanced the state-of-the-art of mesocosm technology and expanded the range of environments in which they can be used collaborating to the development and test of two state of the art mesocosm platforms that can be used for open ocean research. The first one, called KOSMOS (Kiel Off-Shore Mesocosms for Future Ocean Simulations), was used in cooperation with the Seventh Framework Programme (FP7) project EPOCA and other organisations to conduct the world’s first large-scale mesocosm experiment to study the impacts of CO2-induced ocean acidification on a high Arctic plankton community. The second platform called LAMP (Lite aquatic Automated Mesocosm Platform) is a transportable mesocosm platform. It has been successfully tested in Thau Lagoon in 2010 and in Cretan Sea in August –September 2011 and it will be used to understand how aquatic food webs in different ecosystems, are affected by environmental change.
MESAQUA has also tremendously increased the research standard of the European mesocosm facilities through an inter-facility exchange of good practice, transfer of technology and dissemination of knowledge. In practice this has been achieved organizing three workshops for scientists and technical staff, one PhD and postdoctoral course and publishing a guideline for mesocosm design.
Finally MESOAQUA has successfully optimized the effectiveness and enhanced the exchange of information and dissemination of knowledge about mesocosm research, by creating a mailing list (≈ 500 contacts) and a web portal (http://mesoaqua.eu) that function as an international information hub for establishing new contacts and for coordination of research activities. This webpage contains also information about meetings and workshops in aquatic ecological science, mesocosm research literature and information about facilities around the world. All these information will outlive to MESOAQUA project and will continue to exist and to be updated in the future on the web portal http://mesocosm.eu. This will represent, together with the consortium of people formed during this years, a great legacy of MESOAQUA.

Project Context and Objectives:
It is critically important to understand how the lower part of the ocean’s pelagic food web functions. This is the part of the marine ecosystem that is the primary driver of the ocean’s biogeochemical cycles affecting the ocean’s role in climate change; and it is this part of the marine ecosystem that produces food for commercially valuable fish stocks and determines the ability of aquatic environments to handle organic and inorganic pollution. Science-based management of issues ranging from global change to bioremediation thus depends on better holistic knowledge of the ecosystem properties of the lower part of the pelagic food web. To gain this knowledge scientists need experimental tool allowing experimental approach to near-natural pelagic systems. In aquatic ecology, small-scale laboratory experiments offer the advantages of easy replication and high reproducibility; field studies, on the other hand, provide the advantage of being directly relevant to the natural environment. Mesocosm (= enclosures allowing controlled manipulations and monitoring of defined water bodies) experiments combine advantages from both approaches by allowing hypothesis-driven, experimental research in ecosystems that are nearly natural and nearly complete. The mesocosm approach is only about 30 years old, but has rapidly gained momentum. It has now become an indispensable tool for ecosystem research with a strong impact on a variety of sub-disciplines including e.g. climate research, food web dynamics and ecotoxicology. However, due to its youth, mesocosm research as a discipline lacks the long traditions and infrastructures, as well as the deep integration in standard curricula of aquatic science studies found with traditional laboratory and field work. Moreover the high cost of these complex infrastructures has restricted the systematic use of mesocosms to relatively few sites in Europe.
There was therefore a need to establish a network of mesocosm facilities to ease the access for European and non-European scientists to these experimental tools, to disseminate information about the usefulness of this experimental approach, to train young scientists as well as to continue to advance the state-of-the-art technology in this area.
From this need was created the MESOAQUA consortium which worked in synergy to:

• Offer European researchers access to a range of leading mesocosm facilities in contrasting environments
• Develop and test new technologies that allow access to off-shore environments
• Improve the services of the facilities by exchange of technology and experience
• Facilitate cross-disciplinary fertilisation, transnational network building and a better coordination of mesocosm research
• Promote the training of young scientists in the use of experimental ecosystem research

All MESOAQUA objectives have been achieved.

Project Results:
Access to mesocosm facilities
Before MESOAQUA there was no coordinated or formalized transnational access to most of the MESOAQUA facilities. Access took place on a project-to-project basis through personal scientist-to-scientist contacts. Coordinating information about research projects and facilitating the access to the different facilities, MESOAQUA tremendously improved the access to mesocosm research. In these four years MESOAQUA offered to European and non-European researchers 3896 person-days of Transnational Access (TA) to its mesocosm facilities. 167 users have conducted 74 projects, where they were leading or contributing to a total of 23 different cooperative international mesocosm experiments (figure 1). These results are the direct consequence of the increase in communication and in scientific coordination between external users and MESOAQUA.
In these experiments mesocosms were used to investigate different ecological questions ranging from the effects of seawater acidification and warming on plankton communities, to the impact that Saharan dust deposition has on the biogeochemistry of the Eastern Mediterranean Sea. Among the highlights of the TA activities is the cooperation in Jun-Jul 2010 with the FP7 project EPOCA (http://www.epoca-project.eu/) and other organisations to conduct the world’s first large-scale mesocosm experiment to study the impacts of CO2-induced ocean acidification on a high Arctic plankton community. The experiment was coordinated by GEOMAR in the Kongsfjord, Svalbard. It involved cooperation of in total 35 scientists, students and technicians from all over the world, whereof 12 persons, using in total 581 person-days was funded by MESOAQUA. Thus, MESOAQUA critically contributed to this important international joint activity that generated a comprehensive data set which will allow an integrative approach study of the complex responses of pelagic communities to climate change, in a way that was not previously possible. From these data, more than 20 scientific publications have been produced so far and many more will be written in the next future. A short movie describing the experiment is available at the following website: http://www.geomar.de/en/discover/films/ocean-acidificationan-ecosystem-facing-dissolution. Through TA activities MESOAQUA also cooperated with the world’s first and second mesocosm experiment testing the combined effect of increased temperature and CO2 on natural marine plankton including the important but very little studied group, appendicularia, conducted in August 2009 and June 2011 at the University of Bergen, Norway. The experiments indicate that the appendicularian zooplankton may be much less negatively affected by the projected climate change, than the presently dominating zooplankton, the crustaceans. This has implications for understanding marine food webs and predicting the future Oceans.
In its last year MESOAQUA collaborated with the ATMOMED project focusing on the impact of Saharan dust on the microbial food web of the oligotrophic Eastern Mediterranean Sea. Thirty six (15 of which funded by MESOAQUA) scientists from 11 countries participated at this experiment. The experiment was successfully run and completed and produced very interesting results which are expected to improve our knowledge on this cutting-edge research subject. One of the important characteristics of this experiment was the successful collaboration of internationally recognized research teams of both chemists and biologists.
Through TA activities MESOAQUA participated in many other mesocosm experiments. Most of the results produced will be published in the next years surely increasing our understanding of how the lower part of the pelagic food web works, how it responds to climate change, pollution and environmental toxins, and what role it plays in producing food for larger species of fish.

Develop and test new technologies
Most of the mesocosm activities so far have been performed in sheltered waters coastal regions where there is protection from high waves. MESOAQUA advanced the state-of-the-art of mesocosm technology by expanding the range of environments to include open water: the largest environment on earth. Thus MESOAQUA collaborated to the development and test of systems that can be used under the more challenging conditions of open ocean research. The work focused on two different technical concepts: KOSMOS (Kiel Off-Shore Mesocosms for Future Ocean Simulations) is based on a platform with single, free-floating units carrying one mesocosm each (Figure 2).
It has been developed at the Helmholtz Zentrum für Ozeanforschung Kiel (GEOMAR) and allows the study of the effects of environmental change in regions and on pelagic ecosystems that are expected to be particularly sensitive.
This unique mesocosm system was successfully used for the first time in an ocean acidification experiment in the Baltic Sea in 2009. The original design of the mesocosms was further improved based on the experience gained during a series of test runs and experimental deployments. In Jun-Jul 2010 the newly updated KOSMOS system was tested in a full-scale international study during the large-scale multi-national experiment that was carried out in high Arctic waters as cooperation between MESOAQUA and the FP7 project EPOCA (Figure 3.
The CO2 enrichment experiment in Ny-Ålesund was successfully run from May 25 to July 12, 2010. KOSMOS was also used in a large-scale mesocosm experiment conducted in 2012 at the Tvärminne Zoological Station / Finland (http://luoto.tvarminne.helsinki.fi/english/). In the framework of the German collaborative research project SOPRAN (Surface Ocean Processes in the ANthropocene; http://sopran.pangaea.de). Also this experiment investigated the effects of CO2-induced seawater acidification on plankton communities. The study involved 44 scientists from nine universities and research institutes of 5 European countries. The results of Tvärminne 2012 will provide further facts for the understanding of the impacts of ocean acidification on the pelagic communities of the oceans.
More KOSMOS mesocosm experiments are planned in Kristineberg / Sweden (2013), off Gran Canaria (2014), in front of the Peruvian coast (2015), in the California upwelling region (2016) and off the west coast of Africa (2017).
The second off-shore platform developed and tested under MESOAQUA was LAMP (Lite aquatic Automated Mesocosms Platform) constructed at CNRS-ECOSYM in Montpellier/Sète, France. (Figure 4).
LAMP aimed to respond to the scientific need of a standardized mesocosm platform which could be brought out throughout different marine ecosystems. The main scientific goal of this platform is to provide a mobile mesocosm infrastructure to realise mesocosm experiment simulating global and locale changes and studying their effects on biodiversity and functioning of different pelagic food web. LAMP can be used in areas where no traditional mesocosm experimentation can be carried out to respond to a variety of scientific questions including the food web dynamics, changes of biodiversity and biogeochemical cycles, etc. under local and global climate changes.
LAMP was tested first in Thau Lagoon in 2009 and 2010 and was ready several months ahead of schedule and the final test was successfully conducted in a joint experimental test at the Hellenic Centre for Marine Research (HCMR) in Heraklion, Crete, in August/September 2011 (Figure 5).
The test gathered several scientists, technicians and crewmembers from 6 European countries (France, Greece, Norway, Sweden, Germany, and Spain). A documentary of 42 minutes about this experiment has been realised and is distributed on the MESOAQUA web site.
The originality of LAMP is its array of autonomous sensors monitoring in continue and at a high frequency (every 2 minutes) the water temperature of the mesocosms, conductivity, chlorophyll a fluorescence and dissolved oxygen concentrations. The data are stored and transmit in real time. This non-invasive approach provides the possibility of study of short term variations of chlorophyll a and also the calculation of community respiration, gross primary production and net community production of food web in the mesocosms (Mostajir et al. submitted to Limnology & Oceanography: Methods in 2012). Furthermore, one of the floating infrastructures serves as an “in situ observatory” to monitor some of the biological (chlorophyll a) and physical characteristics (temperature) of natural waters surrounding the mesocosms allowing to better appreciate the differences produced due to confining water mass in the mesocosms relative to the natural surrounding water.
By deploying the LAMP in different ecosystems and by comparing the results of continuous monitoring of physical, chemical and biological parameters, it will be possible to draw the general view of the responses of pelagic food web components to a given forcing factor.
LAMP will be an available tool at the disposition of the future research proposals aiming to elucidate the global response of aquatic food webs to a forcing factor.
KOSMOS and LAMP platforms are expected to significantly further the state-of-the-art of mesocosm research enabling researchers to engage in ecosystem level experimentation in a new and challenging environment: offshore locations.

Exchange of technology and experience
MESAQUA has tremendously increased the research standard of the European mesocosm facilities through an inter-facility exchange of good practice, transfer of technology and dissemination of knowledge. In practice this has been achieved organizing workshops for scientists and technical staff, developing PhD and postdoctoral courses and publishing guidelines for mesocosm design.
During four years MESOAQUA has organized three workshops. The first one was held in Umeå, Sweden (partner 5), in October 2009 and had 44 attendees from 12 countries. The second one was held in Montpellier, France (Partner 3), in November 2010 and had 40 attendees, from 10 countries. Finally, the last one was held in Heraklion, Crete, Greece (partner 4) in October of 2012. This was the MESOAQUA final symposium (Figure 6) to which attended 77 scientists from 15 EU countries and 5 countries outside Europe. 44 oral presentations (including 5 keynote ones) were presented as well as 28 posters with a total of 260 authors.
In all workshops there was a good balance between senior scientists, PhD students and young scientists. Students brought and presented their new ideas and had the opportunity to discuss with more established scientists in this field. In each workshop, invited scientists gave lectures about experimental ecosystem research using aquatic mesocosms as the main tool. All participants discussed together the recent advances and achievements, potential research priorities but also highlighted constraints and limitation in mesocosm-based experimentation. All participants had the opportunity to learn about the existence of new facilities, about processes studied by means of mesocosm experimentation and to discuss about future common initiatives.
All MESOAQUA partners were always present or represented. They presented the research at their own mesocosm facilities. They all actively joined the group sessions which included group works and round table discussions. All these discussions have generated the idea for developing guidelines for the best use of mesocosms in order to optimise the quality of results from such experiments. In particular two of the MESOAQUA officers have co-authored a best practice guide for mesocosm work available on the web page: http://www.epoca-project.eu/index.php/guide-to-best-practices-for-ocean-acidification-research-and-data-reporting.html. Moreover, the round table discussion during the last day of the symposium, generated the ideas for two spinoff manuscripts, one on the advantages of using mesocosms as research tool and one a review on the last 20 years of mesocosm research. Finally, all MESOAQUA partners worked together in a common effort to prepare a detailed work plan for a textbook, where the state of knowledge from mesocosm-based research is reviewed. This book, which should see the light in the next future will represent, together with the above mentioned manuscripts, an important legacy of MESOAQUA.
Transfer of knowledge was also performed by inter-facility exchange of good practice and transfer of technology especially between the two partners involved in the development of the off-shores platforms KOSMOS and LAMP. By visiting each other facilities and participating in joint experiments, they benefitted from each other’s expertise, to optimize their state-of-the-art solutions. By this effective reciprocal transfer of technology between these facilities, MESOAQUA enhanced performance of both these units, significantly increasing the level of mesocosm installations available in Europe.

Coordination of mesocosm research
Before MESOAQUA there was no coordination of activities between the European mesocosm facilities. There was also no common information point such as a network or website to coordinate information about each facility (access, users, training opportunities etc.). Mesocosm research is a new field and up to now it has relied on the personal networks and initiatives of the individual scientists involved. In four years MESOAQUA has successfully optimized the effectiveness and enhanced the exchange of information and dissemination of knowledge about mesocosm research. It has also filled the lack of centralized, coordinating infrastructure for mesocosm research in Europe by creating a mailing list (≈ 500 contacts) and a web portal (http://mesoaqua.eu) that function as an information hub for establishing new contacts, networking, coordination of research activities and upcoming meetings and workshops in aquatic ecological science. This portal works also as communication platform between MESOAQUA partners. Thus, the internal, logon portion is an active archive of project documents (e.g. minutes from meetings, experiment dataset etc.) for all project participants. The external portion provides information to the international scientific community about mesocosms research and mesocosm. Both platforms have been continuously updated with the last consortium information but also with new publications, interviews, blogs and movies regarding the MESOAQUA mesocosm facilities and other mesocosm-related activities. This website has been fundamental for attracting and selecting users for TA activities. Thus, it contained all information relevant for users about the MESOAQUA-facilities, the selection process and on-going projects at the different facilities. Also, through web forms, users were able to submit their application to participate to TA activities.
The web portal contains also a photo gallery with pictures from TA experiments, A detailed list of the active mesocosm facilities in Europe and around the world and a bibliography on mesocosm research, in the form of a searchable database, which contains 333 references and which is continuously updated.
All these information will outlive to MESOAQUA project. Thus, thanks to an agreement established between MESOAQUA and the University of Bergen, they will be all maintained and regularly updated on a new web portal already active called http://mesocosm.eu. This will be hosted and maintained for the next years by the Marine Microbiology Group of the Department of Biology at the University of Bergen. This group has more than 30 years of experience in mesocosm research and it is seen at European and extra-European level as a reference in mesocosm research. http://mesocosm.eu is an important legacy of MESOAQUA which will continue to provide information about mesocosm literature, existing mesocosm facilities around the world, their on-going activities facilitating the coordination of international initiatives to conduct mesocosm-based pelagic aquatic science in a global perspective.

Training of young scientists
During four years of MESOAQUA 38 master and PhD students (23% of the total TA users) had the possibility through TA activities to have access to leading pelagic mesocosm facilities across Europe and to join international research projects at the highest international level as group members or as trainees.
In all MESOAQUA workshops, organizers promote the active participation of young scientists involved in mesocosm research. In the first workshop, for example, held in Umeå (partner 5) in October 2009, 22 of the 44 participants were PhD students and young scientists (PhD degree not older than 5 years). As well in the second workshop, held in Montpellier (partner 3) in November 2010, 22 students and young scientists (on a total of 40 participants) were all supported by MESOAQUA for travel and accommodation expenses. Also the organizers of the last MESOAQUA symposium provided economic support (travel and accommodation) to four students.
The importance of educating early stage researchers has been also reflected in the organization of a PhD course entitled “Mesocosms in aquatic ecology: use, problems and potentials” which was arranged and hosted by on GEOMAR (partner 2) in August 2011. 26 students from 15 countries, 24 universities and 13 guest speakers were brought together for three days of lectures and one day excursion. The goal of this course was to introduce PhD students to various mesocosm infrastructures and mesocosm research applications. Students got an idea of scientific questions that can be addressed in mesocosm experiments and had the opportunity to discuss various research ideas using this approach with experts. A series of lectures given by experienced scientists from different fields in aquatic science including ocean acidification, stress ecology and trophic ecology that illustrated the incorporation of this method in cutting-edge research was provided, as well as advantages and limitations of this approach. A documentary about the PhD course and mesocosm facilities at GEOMAR has been realised and it is available at the MESOAQUA web page.
MESOAQUA has put a focus on a lasting structuring effect on the European pelagic mesocosm research by establishing close cooperation between the partners and their groups, hiring postdocs with the most possible complimentary competence, and strongly encouraging close cooperation between them with the aim of building a strong trans-European cooperating team of young research scientists. These young scientists cooperated with the guest teams at their own infrastructure and participated in TA and joint research activities at other MESOAQUA infrastructures. An Early Career Scientists meeting to promote collaborations and discussions was organized in February 2010 with a study-visit to the Kiel-Indoor facility during an on-going TA experiment, led by Prof U. Sommer. During these years they have formed a natural cooperative group building a transnational scientific cooperation that will remain, expand and spark new projects long after the termination of MESOAQUA.

Potential Impact:
By closely combining and coordinating the networking, trans-national access and joint research activities of leading European mesocosm facilities MESOAQUA has optimised the use and development of these research infrastructures and has ensured the access of research teams from across the EU to these infrastructures. This has fostered a wider culture of cooperation, development of new transnational joint research projects, considerable contribution to the scientific field, and development of the methodology and the facilities themselves, beyond the state of the art.
As extensively described above, the main dissemination activities have been performed during the project, both through the MESOAQUA web portal and through scientific training for PhD-students and workshops. Moreover, to improve dissemination actions during the project period, the calls for transnational access to the different facilities were widely announced through several research networks as the MEECE web-page (http://www.meece.eu) the Google Plankton net, AQUASHIFT, the MARS network (http://www.marsnetwork.org) EUROCEANS (http://vds1719.sivit.org/eoc) SOLAS (http://solas-int.org) IMBER (http://www.imber.info/index.html) and OCB (mzaworsky@whoi.edu).
MESOAQUA partners have also played an active role in dissemination of MESOAQUA at their home institutions, to their personal contacts and at conferences and meetings. Documentaries, movies and blogs have been realised by different MESOAQUA partners to describe their facilities and their research activity. For three consecutive years (2010, 2011 and 1012) MESOAQUA have been interviewed by the “Research Media Ltd, International Innovation – Disseminating science, research and technology”, which is distributed to a wide number of stakeholders. They are all available through the MESOAQUA web page and at the partner institutions web pages.
MESOAQUA partners also participated in interviews published in popular press and in TV programs.
Up to now, thirty four scientific publications have been published in peer-reviewed international scientific journals and twenty seven of them have open access. These numbers are expected to increase in the next years. Thus forty three oral presentations and twenty nine posters based on data produced during MESOAQUA, have been presented in international conferences and workshops. Pessimistically we can estimate that at least 70% of these works (≈ 50 papers) will be published in the next years for a total of more than eighty papers realized in the MESOAQUA mainframe. These works, which focus on different aspects of the marine ecosystem, from ocean acidification to toxin effects, will greatly contribute to our understanding of the functioning of the marine food web in this changing world.

List of Websites:
http://mesoaqua.eu