Measuring microbes at one of the most remote places on Earth

by ZSL on

Dr Gareth Williams, Bangor University, joins the Bertarelli Programme in Marine Science coral reef expedition to BIOT to look at microbial communities in the water surrounding reefs in BIOT.

I’m scared of laboratory work at the best of times. In fact, during my PhD my supervisor effectively banned me from the lab after a rather nasty incident with a carcinogenic chemical, my hand, the lack of a glove, and a nonchalant attitude. Similarly, in an attempt to assist my wife in the lab during her PhD, I was rapidly demoted to labelling test tubes and even then I’m almost certain she re-did the labels once I had left.

It is safe to say that laboratory work, and the care and patience needed to succeed in the laboratory, is not my forte. Yet here I am, playing at being a microbial ecologist in the middle of the Indian Ocean under conditions far from ideal for sterile lab work. Two weeks ago my extremely patient wife was helping me construct a make shift microbial ecology laboratory in our kitchen and taking me through good lab practices in order to reduce contamination. Now I have the same set-up and am trying to enforce the same good lab practices within a container on the back deck of a 70m ship designed for providing aid to oil rigs in distress in the North Sea.

My goal is to describe and measure the microbial communities living in the water surrounding the reefs of the Chagos Archipelago. Microbes are an extremely interesting group of organisms; who they are and what they are doing can offer valuable insight into the health of a coral reef. So the challenge emerges, how to piece together the conditions needed to carry out careful, sterile, preferably cold microbial lab work on an oily ship in 40°C heat of the tropics?

2018 April. GW and CH working in the lab. BIOT. Dan Bayley
Gareth and Catherine working in their make shift lab on the boat in BIOT

Step 1: Find somewhere cold to store samples.

The ship’s cook kindly agreed to allow me to store things in his walk in fridge, as long as they are properly contained and away from food.

Step 2: Find a way to freeze samples, sometimes quickly.

Fortunately, our liquid nitrogen survived the warm transport ship crossing to meet our vessel. This, combined with access to the back deck walk in freezer container, allows me to quickly freeze samples and store them safely.

Step 3: Turn a deck container into a somewhat sterile environment.

... A deck container that has been sweltering and rotting in the heat of the tropics for the best part of a year. This requires ethanol… lots of ethanol, a cloth, and some good old fashioned elbow grease. Problem solved, as long as I repeat this process on an almost daily basis.

Step 4: Collect microbes!

I currently spend days diving in the crystal clear waters of some of the most remote coral reefs on the planet collecting near-reef water. The advantage of this task is that it takes, on average, all of 6 minutes underwater to achieve. I then get to enjoy the remaining 54 minutes of each dive exploring the reefs and photo documenting the reef inhabitants, many of whom are extremely photogenic and happy to cooperate. If at this point you are thinking, how is that fair, don’t worry, I spend the remainder of the day and often parts of the night filtering the water in order to extract various microbial and chemical/nutrient components.

The samples we are collecting represent the first broad assessment of the microbial ecology of the Chagos Archipelago’s coral reefs. Anomalously warm ocean temperatures recently led to mass coral mortality across the Archipelago. It is our aim to use the microbial communities to offer insight in to which direction the reefs are transitioning; either back to coral or towards a different state that is not optimal for reef persistence.

Step 5: Figure out how to keep our samples frozen.

This, in order to get them to San Diego, California uncompromised…not yet solved, but still working on it. Watch this space.

For more updates from this and future expeditions follow us on Twitter @BIOTScience

This work was kindly funded by the Bertarelli Foundation as part of the Bertarelli Programme in Marine Science.

Select a blog

Careers at ZSL

Our people are our greatest asset and we realise our vision for a world where wildlife thrives through their ideas, skills and passion. An inspired, informed and empowered community of people work, study and volunteer together at ZSL.

Nature at the heart of global decision making

At ZSL, a key area of our work is the employment of Nature-based Solutions – an approach which both adapt to and mitigates the impacts of climate change. These Solutions, which include habitat protection and restoration, are low-cost yet high-impact, and provide multiple benefits to people and wildlife. We ensure that biodiversity recovery is at the heart of nature-based solutions. 

ZSL London Zoo

A blog for lovers of ZSL London Zoo, bringing you extraordinary animal facts and exclusive access to the world's oldest scientific zoo.

ZSL Whipsnade Zoo

Do you love wildlife? Discover more about our amazing animals at the UK's biggest zoo!


We're working around the world to conserve animals and their habitats, find out more about our latest achievements.


From the field to the lab, catch up with the scientists on the cutting edge of conservation biology at ZSL’s Institute of Zoology.


A day in Discovery and Learning at ZSL is never dull! The team tell us all about the exciting sessions for school children, as well as work further afield.

Artefact of the month

Every month, one of the pieces held in ZSL’s Library and at ZSL Whipsnade Zoo will feature here as Artefact of the Month.

Wild About

Read testimonials from our Members and extracts from ZSL's award winning members' magazine, Wild About.

Chagos Expedition

The Chagos archipelago is a rare haven for marine biodiversity. Hear from the team about our projects to protect the environments in the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT).

Asia Conservation Programme

ZSL works across Asia, from the famous national parks of Nepal to marine protected areas in the Philippines. Read the latest updates on our conservation.

Remote Sensing in Ecology and Conservation

An Open Access journal for research at the interface of remote sensing, ecology and conservation.