GEOTRACES is an international programme that was created to accelerate research on the global marine biogeochemical cycles of trace elements and their isotopes. Research encompasses four principle themes: 1) micronutrient elements (e.g. Fe, Co, Zn, Mn, Cu), which are essential for life; 2) tracers of processes that supply elements to the ocean; 3) anthropogenic contaminants (e.g. Hg, Pb); 4) geochemical proxies used in paleoceanography (e.g. trace-metal stable isotopes, naturally occurring radionuclides). The strategies adopted by GEOTRACES provide a template that can be adopted by other programmes in emerging fields of geochemistry.