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

Published June 8, 2017

MSU Foundation Professors Chris Klausmeier (left) and Elena Litchman inspect phytoplankton growth at different temperatures. Photo: Bethany Bohlen, KBS

Michigan State University aquatic ecologist Elena Litchman is the lead investigator of a four-year, $2 million National Science Foundation (NSF) 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, already globally recognized for her leading-edge work with phytoplankton, 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, who is an MSU Foundation Professor in the Department of Integrative Biology in the MSU College of Natural Science (NatSci) and a faculty member at MSU’s W.K. Kellogg Biological Station (KBS). “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 KBS 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.

“High genetic and functional diversity within a species may allow evolutionary adaptation of that species to warming,” said Christopher Klausmeier, MSU Foundation Professor in NatSci’s Department of Plant Biology, KBS faculty member and co-investigator for the project. “If the diversity is high within species, then that species may have a better chance to adapt and persist in the future.”

With a diverse range of thermal and nutrient samples, Litchman’s team can more fully describe intra- and inter-specific genetic and functional diversity among different communities of phytoplankton. Add this to the long term, pre-existing data from both sites, and the Litchman-Klausmeier lab will be able to create novel mathematical models to predict future phytoplankton community structure. The team hopes the models can be used to predict how other complex ecological communities may adapt to warming temperatures.

The research will also play an important role in education. Litchman and her team 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,” Litchman said. “Results will also be disseminated to the public through an environmental journalism institute based in Rhode Island.”