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SF State researchers awarded $1.2 million to test survivability of key phytoplankton

National Science Foundation supports researchers at SF State's Romberg Tiburon Center for Environmental Studies in genomic study on how acidification affects a major component of the ocean's carbon cycles

SAN FRANCISCO, December 10, 2007 -- Three researchers at San Francisco State University's Romberg Tiburon Center for Environmental Studies (RTC) received $1.2 million in funding from the National Science Foundation for a genomic study on how a phytoplankton species might respond to the elevated rate of ocean acidification predicted for the end of this century.

Professor of Biology Ed Carpenter, Assistant Professor of Oceanography Tomoko Komada and Assistant Professor of Biology Jonathon Stillman plan to grow populations of the species, Emiliania huxleyi, in RTC labs under conditions that represent the current and future ocean environment as it may be changed due to increasing acidification.

E. huxleyi, a species of calcifying phytoplankton, is so prolific and widespread that its hundreds of miles of blooms on the Earth's oceans can be easily detected by satellites. While a powerhouse player in photosynthesis, its survival may be threatened by a steadily growing rate of ocean acidification caused by rising atmospheric CO2 levels.

The acidification levels predicted to occur by the end of this century are capable of dissolving E. huxleyi's exoskeleton, which might affect its growth rate. The decline of such a robust producer could impact the Earth's carbon cycle. Phytoplankton accounts for about half of the Earth's carbon dioxide, a major greenhouse gas absorbed annually from the atmosphere by plants.

Carpenter, whose research focuses on phytoplankton's role as a producer and the factors that limit phytoplankton growth, plans to cultivate as many as 700 generations of E. huxleyi cells, which will allow the team to measure the ability of the organism to evolve in response to predicted changes. Stillman's lab will extract RNA molecules from the cells, and use genomic tools to study the genes being activated under the different conditions.

"We want to find out what sorts of changes take place in their genome as their environment is altered," said Stillman, whose research focuses on the effects of environmental stress on marine organisms. "Being able to monitor the activity of all of the genes at once provides a very high resolution picture of how cells are responding to the environment."

Komada, whose body of research examines the ocean's carbon cycle, will create and direct the changes to the experiment's environment by adjusting the CO2 levels in the phytoplankton's lab environment. "Higher atmospheric CO2 makes the seawater more acidic because carbonic acid is produced when CO2 dissolves in seawater," she said.

The study is expected to take three years. The team said that their findings about how E. huxleyi responds to ocean acidification would also pertain to other calcifying organisms such as corals, starfish, sea urchins and crustaceans.

The Romberg Tiburon Center for Environmental Studies, San Francisco State University's marine field station located 30 minutes north of the Golden Gate Bridge, is the only academic research facility situated on San Francisco Bay. In addition to fostering collaborative scientific research, RTC provides SF State students with graduate- and undergraduate-level courses as well as practical research opportunities conducted with RTC scientists.

Photos available upon request


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