UCI-Led Study Uses Plankton Genomes as Global Biosensors of Ocean Ecosystem Stress


UCI graduate students, researchers traveled the world to chart major ocean regions.

By analyzing gains and losses in the genes of phytoplankton samples collected in all major ocean regions, researchers at the University of California, Irvine have created the most nuanced and high-resolution map yet to show where these photosynthetic organisms either thrive or are forced to adapt to limited quantities of key nutrients, nitrogen, phosphorus and iron.

As part of the new Bio-GO-SHIP initiative, the UCI scientists made eight deployments on six different research vessels, spending 228 days at sea in the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian oceans. They generated nearly 1,000 ocean metagenomes from 930 locations around the globe, with an average distance between collection points at 26.5 kilometers (about 16.5 miles).

In a study published today in Science, the UCI researchers explain how they used a wealth of information embedded in microbial genes – specifically from the species of phytoplankton Prochlorococcus – as a biosensor of ocean health and productivity. Oceanographers working in this field are keenly interested in understanding how these organisms adapt to “nutrient stress,” which is the struggle to find or use the essential substances they need in order to grow and reproduce.

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