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June 14, 2017

$2 million NSF grant awarded to predict future viability of phytoplankton

Michigan State University aquatic ecologist Elena Litchman is the lead investigator of a four-year, $2 million National Science Foundation Dimensions of Biodiversity grant to study how genetic and functional diversity in phytoplankton helps them adapt to rising ocean temperatures.

Phytoplankton, the photosynthetic marine microbes, are irreplaceable components of oxygen production, the aquatic food web and global energy, and nutrient cycles — but basic questions about how species diversity effects their ability to organize and adapt have yet to be answered.

Litchman now has an opportunity to answer these questions and help predict how these vital organisms will respond to future changes in the environment.

“The project will combine field sampling, experiments and mathematical models to predict how the diversity of phytoplankton, the most important primary producers in aquatic systems, will respond to ocean warming,” said Litchman. “This work will help us understand how aquatic ecosystems reorganize under global change.”

The project is a collaboration between MSU, the University of Rhode Island, the University of Southern California and Princeton/NOAA. Litchman and her team will expand the phytoplankton research beyond their base at Kellogg Biological Station into two separate sites; the temperate Narragansett Bay estuary in Rhode Island and a subtropical North Atlantic site near Bermuda.

Sampling at both places provides the opportunity to observe how different species of phytoplankton from temperate and subtropical ocean respond to varying temperatures and nutrient loads. The scientists theorize that a higher level of diversity within a phytoplankton community will allow it to reorganize more successfully.

Litchman and her team also plan to use their data to train and inspire future scientists. Students in the lab will be taught on-board sampling, experimental design and techniques, mathematical modeling and genomic analyses.

“Findings from the project will be incorporated into K-12 teaching, including real data exercises for rural schools in Michigan and an advanced placement environmental science class for underrepresented minorities in Los Angeles,” said Litchman. “Results will also be disseminated to the public through an environmental journalism institute based in Rhode Island.”