Sciences

Phytoplankton in a Warming World

Reed biologists plumb the secrets of the tiny organisms that produce half the planet’s oxygen.

By Guananí Gómez-Van Cortright ’18 | October 15, 2019

If you breathe, thank a phytoplankton. These minuscule aquatic plants—thousands could swim in a single drop of water—are responsible for producing about half the world’s oxygen. 

Prof. Sam Fey [biology], a population and community ecologist and assistant professor, won a $700,000 grant from the National Science Foundation (shared between his lab at Reed and collaborators at Yale University) to study the microorganisms. “They represent a sweet spot for me, because of their ecological importance, astounding diversity, and overall beauty,” he says. 

Using freshwater phytoplankton and a variety of laboratory environments that vary in their thermal and light properties, Fey and his students will study how phytoplankton populations flourish—or plummet—when facing sudden changes in temperature and light.

Due to their vital role in global ecology and their quick generation time, phytoplankton are ideal for predicting how organisms react to sudden changes in their environment. “We know that environmental variation is omnipresent, and that organisms can respond to that change over their lifetime, for example, the shedding and acquiring fur coats by mammals when the seasons change,” Fey explains. This type of trait adjustment during a single lifetime is known as phenotypic plasticity, and it could play a crucial role in how vulnerable or resilient different animal and plant populations are in the face of climate change.

To understand how phenotypic plasticity can alter the ecological dynamics of populations, the Fey Lab will develop mathematical models that can forecast how phytoplankton respond to drastic changes in light and temperature, and then confront those predictions with actual data. “Our main end goal is to improve ecological forecasts that predict what a warmer world will look like, and provide a more informed picture of the consequences of our current carbon emissions,” he says.

Fey is excited that students will play an active role in the project. The grant will support senior theses, independent projects, and six student summer research positions over the course of the next three years, and is one of eleven federally funded projects currently under way in the Reed biology department.

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