MSUToday
Published: Oct. 10, 2018

MSU aquatic ecologist lands grant to study phytoplankton traits

Contact(s): Val Osowski College of Natural Science office: (517) 432-4561 osowskiv@msu.edu

Elena Litchman, Michigan State University aquatic ecologist, is leading a three-year, $993,000 project funded by the National Science Foundation in collaboration with faculty at the University of Texas at Austin. The project aims to investigate and to predict intraspecific trait variation in phytoplankton. Christopher Klausmeier, an MSU theoretical ecologist, is a co-principal investigator on the project. 

The study will determine the trait and genetic relatedness of phytoplankton species isolated from four lakes in southwest Michigan with different levels of nutrients, light and zooplankton predation. 

Phytoplankton are the primary producers in most aquatic ecosystems that affect water quality, biogeochemistry and ecosystem functioning. Consequently, intraspecific variation in species’ characteristics is an important determinant of species’ eco-evolutionary responses to changing conditions, community interactions and ecosystem functioning, making it important to determine what drives intraspecific trait variation in diverse speciesand to characterize its extent.

“The diversity within species is important as it provides the potential for that species to adapt to novel conditions,” said Litchman, who, along with Klausmeier, is a faculty member at MSU’s Kellogg Biological Station. “We know relatively little about how this diversity is generated and maintained in any ecological system. This project, by combining theory, field sampling and experiments will allow us to gain a better understanding of the mechanisms driving within-species diversity.”  

Litchman explained that this study will answer several fundamental questions on how limiting and nonlimiting nutrients and other resources and ecological interactions influence intraspecific trait variation. The results will also help determine whether more closely related strains of a species have more similar traits, investigating a link between genetic and functional diversity at the species level.

“It’s been long recognized that ecology and evolutionary biology are really two aspects of the same field, but in recent years there has been an upswing in models that combine this perspective,” Klausmeier said. “Our work will contribute to this ongoing synthesis by showing how the same environmental factors drive both species diversity and genetic diversity within species.”

The project will advance knowledge of intraspecific trait variation in ecologically important microbes and phytoplankton, and provide insights into how trait diversity is generated and maintained, both within and among species. The information on intraspecific variation in key functional traits of phytoplankton will be useful for aquatic ecologists as well as water quality and environmental assessment specialists.

The effects of this research will extend beyond the lab and academic journals. 

Students at different educational levels will be trained on this project including a high school student from the Kalamazoo Area Math and Science Center.

Teachers will participate in field sampling and experiments and will develop exercises with algae on algal diversity, global change and water quality. These exercises are real data presented in grade-appropriate ways for K-12 students to practice understanding or analyzing quantitative information and to make evidence-based conclusions. 

Results of the project will be included in the K-12 teacher professional development workshops that provide Professional Development Credit for Texas teachers in evolution. 

University of Texas will receive $450,000 of the grant, with Edward Theriot acting as a co-principal investigator.

MSU Foundation Professors Elena Litchman and Christopher Klausmeier received an NSF grant to support their research investigating intraspecific trait variation in ecologically important microbes and phytoplankton. Photo courtesy KBS.

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