Tiburon center will study future of key phytoplankton

The survival of a phytoplankton species that helps clean the Earth of carbon monoxide will be studied by researchers in Tiburon who have received a $1.2 million grant for the work.

San Francisco State University’s Romberg Tiburon Center for Environmental Studies received the grant from the National Science Foundation to study the future of E. huxleyi, a species of calcifying phytoplankton.


What makes the phytoplankton so critical is that it helps absorb greenhouse gases, mainly carbon monoxide, then deposits the gas at the bottom of the sea when it dies and sinks.

“Without this phytoplankton we would see a lot more greenhouse gases in the atmosphere,” said Ed Carpenter, a biology professor who is working on the study.

The problem is there is so much carbon dioxide finding its way into the oceans, the water is becoming more acidic and the phytoplankton may have trouble surviving in coming generations.

Carpenter, assistant professor of oceanography Tomoko Komada and assistant professor of biology Jonathon Stillman plan to grow populations of the species in labs over the next three years under conditions that represent the current and future ocean environment to see if it can adjust to increasing acidity.

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of the phytoplankton could also affect zooplankton, which is one of the building blocks of the aquatic food chain. Zooplankton feeds on the E. huxleyi phytoplankton.

In turn, feeder fish, such as anchovies and sardines, feast on zooplankton. Larger fish feed on feeder fish.

Carpenter plans to cultivate as many as 700 generations of E. huxleyi cells in his Tiburon lab, which will allow the team to measure the ability of the organism to evolve in response to predicted changes over time.

Stillman’s lab will use tools to study the genes being activated under different acidic conditions.

“We want to find out what sorts of changes take place in their genome as their environment is altered,” said Stillman whose research focuses on the effects of environmental stress on marine organisms. “Being able to monitor the activity of all of the genes at once provides a very high resolution picture of how cells are responding to the environment.”

And that will give the researchers an idea of how the phytoplankton will fare in the future.

If the phytoplankton disappears, the effect would be immense. The phytoplankton is so prolific that its hundreds of miles of blooms on the Earth’s oceans can be seen from space.

“It turns the water a milky white, and there are huge blooms around Alaska and the Bering Sea and other areas,” Carpenter said. “It is very important.”

Mark Prado, Marin Independent Journal, 22 December 2007. Article.


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