By Marlene Cimons, National Science Foundation
You may not know this, but you can thank phytoplankton for the oxygen in every second breath you take.
Phytoplankton are microscopic organisms that live in the ocean and form a significant part of the bottom of the marine food chain. Through photosynthesis, they play a vital role in removing carbon dioxide from the water, and in producing oxygen—accounting for half of the oxygen that humans consume.
“That’s one of the reasons why it’s so important to understand the role plankton have, and the impact climate change is having on them,” said Graham Shimmield, executive director of the Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences in East Boothbay, Me., an internationally known global ocean research center since 1974. Moreover, “the oceans regulate the rate of climate change, and influence the major cycling of elements associated with climate change,” he added.
The Bigelow Laboratory of Ocean Sciences is preparing to launch a major research effort into studying what the changing climate is doing to the oceans, in particular, the role of plankton in this relationship, because “understanding how the ocean responds to changing climate is critical to our nation and all of human society,” said David Coit, chair of Bigelow’s board of trustees.
Ultimately, scientists will conduct the work from the Center for Ocean Biogeochemistry and Climate Change, a new building that will be constructed on the Bigelow campus, and will feature more than 7,000 square feet of energy efficient lab space for gas chromatography; organic, nutrient and trace metal analyses; cell culturing and microscopy, radioisotope experiments and optics, among other things. The center researchers also plan to use satellite technology to observe the effects of the changing climate on the oceans.
The National Science Foundation has awarded nearly $5 million to help build the new center as part of its economic stimulus funds from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. The workforce on the Bigelow campus is expected to double over the next three years as a result of the planned expansion, which includes several initiatives. Construction of the new building is expected to create more than 200 new jobs. Moreover, in the long term, the research investment also will likely inspire new technology and products, according to Shimmield. “It will go from basic science to technology transfer,” he said.
Academically, Bigelow Laboratory officials estimate that the new center will double the recent five-fold increase in its postdoctoral training program, and strengthen its portfolio of workshops, courses, and internships. Furthermore, Bigelow Laboratory recently completed its second year as a national site for the NSF-sponsored Research Experience for Undergraduates Program, which hosts students from across the country for ten weeks each summer, pairing them with senior scientist mentors to conduct independent research projects.
The new ocean biogeochemistry and climate change center will focus on plankton. These are drifting marine organisms—their name, in fact, comes from the Greek planktos, meaning “wanderers”—which can be animals, plants, single-celled microorganisms or bacteria. Phytoplankton are plants, including seaweed and algae, while zooplankton are animals. Plankton, typically at the base of the marine food chain, are an important source of food to larger aquatic organisms, such as fish.
The scientists will study what happens to plankton as the temperature changes, as well as their response to the ocean’s growing acidification. The latter occurs when increasing amounts of carbon dioxide dissolve in seawater, lowering its pH, and producing carbonic acid. Many plankton, which make their skeletons from chalk, may be damaged by the changing water chemistry, which reduces the level of calcium carbonate, an important ingredient many sea creatures need to build their shells. “A great amount of marine life depends on their ability to make skeletons of chalk, and all are influenced by this process,” Shimmield said.
Additionally, changes in ocean temperature, the result of global warming, could alter the distribution of plankton. Plankton cannot swim—they are carried by the currents—and researchers want to learn what will happen if plankton end up in locations where the temperatures are now cooler, or warmer. Will they be able to adapt? “Some plankton like the warmer temperatures, some like it cooler, and we’re trying to understand what those new distribution patterns will be,” Shimmield said.