Impact of climate change on marine algae

With climate change looming large, countries around the world are mobilising their top scientists in an effort to measure its impact on the environment and society. One such scientist is the young Dr Björn Rost, who was recently awarded a EUR 1.4 million Independent Researcher Grant by the European Research Council (ERC). His research will focus on the impact of climate change on micro algae in the oceans.
Big movie productions and many science fiction writers have again and again painted a very dramatic picture of the consequences of climate change. However, what is often forgotten is that any changes that occur will first be noticed at the micro level. And this is precisely the level at which Dr Björn Rost will be focusing his work.

The PhytoChange project will deal with the impact of climate change on marine phytoplankton – micro algae. The ocean’s surface micro algae play an important part in the marine ecosystem as they provide the nutritional basis for marine life. There is much life on the ocean’s surface; micro algae are able to utilise the sun’s rays as their source of energy for growth and transform carbon dioxide (CO2) into organic compounds such as sugars.

However, CO2 emissions are increasing as a result of pollution, leading to higher CO2 concentrations and lower pH values in marine ecosystems. This causes the oceans to become more acidic, what marine scientists term ocean acidification. Meanwhile, rising global temperatures adversely impact the stratification of the ocean’s surface, causing changes to the surface water light regime and nutrient input from deeper layers of the ocean. These changes have far-reaching implications for the whole ecosystem and food chain.

‘Predictions of how phytoplankton may respond to future changes at the cellular and ecosystem levels are a central task in climate research. We must go beyond the descriptive level and understand why photosynthesis, calcification, nitrogen fixation and other important cellular processes of marine algae are altered under the influence of climate change,’ explained Dr Rost who works at the Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research in Germany.

The project will specifically examine the impact of environmental changes on selected phytoplankton groups, such as diatoms and coccolithophores. ‘So far, experiments focussed predominantly on the impact of individual environmental factors and rarely on the combined effects,’ says Dr Rost. ‘Therefore, we will analyse several influences simultaneously in our laboratory and field experiments. The methods we developed in the last few years will enable us not only to describe, but also to explain the species-specific responses to the altered environmental impacts.’

Dr Rost was one of 9 000 people who applied for funding from the ERC’s Independent Researcher Grant. Only 3% of applicants in this highly competitive field were successful. These grants offer up to EUR 2 million over a period of five years and are designed to boost the careers of young researchers.

PhytoChange will work in cooperation with several research institutes worldwide, namely the University of British Columbia (Canada), the University of Technology, Sydney (Australia), the Marine Biological Station of Roscoff (France), Bar Ilan University (Israel), the University of Copenhagen (Denmark), and the University of Edinburgh (UK).

European Commission Research Headlines, 16 April 2008. Article.

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