NEAT is a multi-facetted project with technological, ecological, scientific and sustainable use perspectives, aiming at understanding micronekton communities prior to their commercial exploitation to fulfil Sustainable Development Goals “Zero Hunger” (SDG2), while not jeopardizing them (SDG14, “Life Below Water”). By using eDNA collected at sites where organisms were taxonomically identified, the three leading ECRs will relate identified specimens to the horizontal and vertical distribution from acoustic data, and to oceanographic features. Metabarcoding of micronekton specimens collected during previous cruises will allow the enrichment of open access DNA reference databases, thus allowing the R&I objectives to be verified and compared to international standards. NEAT will link with EU’s mission Digital Twin of the Ocean to address how to digitally record and manage open eDNA data and facilitate knowledge sharing for biodiversity monitoring and modelling. It will strengthen the EU position in research, innovation and technology, and excellent science. Basic biological knowledge of micronekton, including taxonomic diversity, abundance and biomass, life cycle, and role in the trophodynamics of marine ecosystems, is still lacking despite a growing interest in the commercial exploitation of these organisms.

The main objective of NEAT is to develop and integrate a set of innovative methodologies to better study micronekton. Micronekton consists of crustaceans, cephalopods and mesopelagic fishes, of 2 to 20 cm in size. There is an urgent need to study micronekton since basic biological knowledge is still lacking, despite its key trophic link between zooplankton and top predators, and its role in the oceanic biological pump. The poor knowledge of micronekton communities is mainly due to the limitations of traditional tools such as acoustics and trawls, to infer their diversity, abundance and migration. Environmental DNA can overcome the above limitations by providing new insight into the presence of mesopelagic species escaping traditional net sampling.

eDNA sample collection methods for studying deep-sea biodiversity will be presented during the eDNA conference (CSIRO, virtual).

Micronekton DNA sequences: The genetic data will be shared on open access, public databases such as MetaZooGene, GenBank, and MitoFish.

Peer-reviewed publication titled “Evaluating eDNA sample collection methods for studying micronekton” will be submitted to L&O Methods.

Peer-reviewed publication titled “Micronekton biodiversity and distribution in the Indian, subtropical Oceans and Mediterranean Sea using acoustic, eDNA and trawl metabarcoding” in Front. Mar. Sci.

NEAT will hence address the following priorities:

  • Managing ocean complexity; NEAT will contribute to the understanding and assessment of the state of deep-sea resources and biodiversity to inform sustainable fishing practices and management.
  • Target ocean and human health; There is a growing interest for the commercial exploitation of micronekton for pharmaceutical products and fishmeal. However, many micronekton species are still not yet described and their ecological role and their associated services are not fully understood. NEAT will allow the characterization of deep-sea ecosystems and will be the stepping stone for future discussions on using micronekton for increased food provision and the discovery of pharmaceutical products.
  • Protect ocean commons; The multidisciplinary integration of eDNA, acoustic, coupled morphological taxonomy and barcoding will allow better observations, evaluations and predictions of the ocean’s common resources so as to provide an integrated framework to inform decision making on the governance of micronekton resources.