Bilbao hosts scientific expedition to study human impact on Europe’s coastal regions

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First publication date: 03/10/2023


A major scientific expedition to understand biodiversity and ecosystems along Europe’s coastlines is underway. Over the course of two years, the expedition, called ‘TRaversing European Coastlines’, or TREC, is gathering information about how organisms interact with each other and their environment at a molecular level.

Led by the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL) together with the Tara Ocean Foundation, the Tara OceanS Consortium, and the European Marine Biology Resource Centre (EMBRC), TREC also involves national research institutes such as the University of the Basque Country’s Plentzia Marine Station, located at the coast downstream of the Bilbao estuary.

The TREC expedition takes place on land and at sea in parallel, stopping at over 120 sites, including Bilbao and other Spanish locations, in 22 European countries. At each stop, the European Molecular Biology Laboratory’s mobile labs sample on land while the schooner Tara, of the Tara Ocean Foundation, samples out at sea. The scientists collect and analyse soil, sediment, aerosol, water samples, and small living organisms. This way, they generate a census of biodiversity on land and at sea, while also recording environmental conditions, such as temperature, pH, salinity. They also record the presence of pollutants such as antibiotics and pesticides.

Gorliz-Plentzia-Bilbao and surrounding coastal sites in the Biscay Bay are hosting the TREC expedition on its first stop in Spain. From Friday 29 September to 18 October, a series of outreach activities will be offered to the general public, culminating in a dedicated event on 11 October at Bilbao’s harbour.

Activities for the general public

The public will be able to discover the power of molecular biology in meeting the challenges of human and planetary health, and the importance of our oceans, through the exhibition 'TREC in the City', as a ‘premiere’ at the European Researchers Night on 29 September, and then available in several locations across the city.

TREC partners will also offer several scientific workshops, like ‘Nexus island’ (EMBL) and ‘Plankton workshop’ and ‘Plastic workshop’ (Tara Ocean Foundation). The participants will be able to explore the science themselves to understand the links between land and sea, man and planet.

Visits to the Tara schooner, the EMBL mobile laboratory, EMBRC mobile lab, and Plentzia Marine Station are also planned, as well as an interactive conference for the general public 'Science on tour' with scientists from the expedition.

Programme of activities

An overview of the full programme can be found online at

The scientific expedition

Our seas and coastlines host an extremely rich diversity of life, and play a critical role in the stability and sustainability of wider ecosystems. However, planetary changes such as global warming, human activity and pollution lead to ecosystem destruction, loss of diversity, and spread of antibiotic resistance. By bringing new data and expertise together, and making it openly available to the scientific community, TREC aims to help understand coastal ecosystems and address global challenges.

The TREC expedition brings together more than 150 research teams from over 70 institutions in 29 European countries. The sampling effort will cover different scales of life – from viruses and bacteria to algae, plants and animals – on land, in river estuaries, and at sea.

Importantly, the pan-European nature of this project means that samples are taken in a standardised fashion. This enables scientists to compare and probe data across Europe in a way that was not previously possible.

At the Bilbao stop, the scientific activities include soil, sediment, water, aerosol, selected species and environmental data sampling involving EMBL’s mobile laboratories and the Tara schooner. The equipment and technologies in the mobile labs means scientists can perform molecular research in direct proximity to the sampling site. This preserves the samples immediately after taking them from the field and reduces any changes or degradation that might happen during transit.

Since 13 September Plentzia marine station has already been hosting EMBL’s Advanced Mobile Laboratory. This is a sophisticated laboratory on wheels that brings cutting-edge technology directly to the field, helping researchers carry out advanced sample preparation, metadata acquisition, and analysis – immediately after sample collection.

EMBL acknowledges the generous support of many institutions, donors and sponsors, in particular the Manfred Lautenschläger-Foundation, Eppendorf SE, Carl Zeiss Microscopy, and Friends of EMBL in helping make TREC possible.

About EMBL

The European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL) is Europe’s life sciences laboratory. We provide leadership and coordination for the life sciences across Europe, and our world-class fundamental research seeks collaborative and interdisciplinary solutions for some of society’s biggest challenges. We provide training for students and scientists, drive the development of new technology and methods in the life sciences, and offer state-of-the-art research infrastructure for a wide range of experimental and data services.

EMBL is an intergovernmental organisation with 28 member states, one associate member, and one prospective member. At our six sites in Barcelona,​​ Grenoble, Hamburg, Heidelberg, Hinxton near Cambridge, and Rome, we seek to better understand life in its natural context, from molecules to ecosystems.

About Tara Ocean Foundation

The Tara Ocean Foundation is the first public interest foundation in France dedicated to the Ocean. Its 2 main missions are to explore the Ocean to better understand it and share the relating scientific knowledge to raise citizen and collective awareness. For 20 years, the Foundation has developed a high- level Ocean science in collaboration with international research laboratories of excellence, to explore, understand and anticipate the upheavals related to climate and environmental risks, as well as the impacts of pollution. In order to make the Ocean a common responsibility and to preserve it, the Tara Ocean Foundation also works towards raising public awareness about ocean science and educating the younger generations. By studying and protecting the Ocean, we take care of our planet’s global system.

About EMBRC (European Marine Biological Resource Centre)

The European Marine Biological Resource Centre (EMBRC-ERIC) is a research infrastructure which aims at advancing marine biodiversity knowledge. EMBRC mobilises scientists, industries, policymakers and international organisations towards open science. Gathering more 70 marine sites in 9 countries across Europe, EMBRC gives access to state-of-art research facilities and expertise in marine biology and ecology to promote the blue sustainable economy and meet today’s societal challenges. Through EMO BON (European Marine Omics Biodiversity Observation Network), its biodiversity observatory, EMBRC produces genomic data to support the global ocean observation system and contribute to the UN Ocean Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development. Actively supporting education, EMBRC promotes training opportunities in marine sciences for future generations. In the face of global environmental challenges, EMBRC contributes to the European efforts in understanding marine biodiversity and to the global science-based decision-making process. EMBRC was granted the status of European Research Infrastructure Consortium (ERIC) by the European Commission in 2018. Follow us on, Twitter, LinkedIn and Youtube.

About Plentzia Marine Station

The Research Centre for Experimental Marine Biology and Biotechnology “Plentziako Itsas Estazioa” (PiE-UPV/EHU; Plentzia Marine Station) is the marine station of the University of the Basque Country (UPV/EHU). It housed in an iconic building right in the intertide that faces the Biscay Bay. The building is exactly 100 years old and was born to fight against tuberculosis and bone disease; and it was refurbished in 2012 into a centre to promote research, education (postgraduate studies and doctorates) and dissemination in marine sciences. It also provides to industry and administration technical advice in the field of its expertise: the interaction between the Ocean, the ecosystem and the human health. As such, PiE-UPV/EHU offers advanced research services in marine biology, and it is founding member of the European research infrastructure European Marine Biological Resource Centre (EMBRC).

Research in PiE-UPV/EHU is aimed at protecting both ocean health and human wealth and at promoting environmental science, technology and awareness. PiE-UPV/EHU is small but wide-scoped, well-defined but flexible, ad hoc designed for its purposes but modular, dynamic but long-lasting, with strict controls necessary for excellence but wide windows open towards people, and homeland rooted but open-to-globe.