The evidence is that the oceans play a key role in climate regulation arguably the most important environmental (and hence socio-economic) issue facing mankind. One group of organisms is central to aspects of the ocean’s economy: phytoplankton. These microbes fuel the marine food web, which ultimately leads to fish and marine biomass. Phytoplankton photosynthesise, assimilating CO2 and so drawdown CO2 from the atmosphere, helping to ameliorate the “greenhouse effect”. Under conditions of high nutrients, they can grow excessively making eutrophic conditions, or harmful algal blooms possible.
Harmful Algal Blooms (HABs) are caused by a number of marine organisms (e.g. cyanobacteria, dinoflagellates) that produce substances (e.g. microcystin) toxic to humans and a wide range of species in the marine environment. In bloom conditions, when these organisms are present in large numbers, these toxins can cause extensive damage to ecosystems, fisheries (particularly shellfish), and the tourist economy. HABs are common in some areas and are increasing in frequency with climate change and introduction of alien species. HABs could be predicted if sensitive methods for the detection of HAB species were used frequently enough to observe growth trends in these populations.
Understanding the role of the oceans in fuelling marine food webs, and in controlling the climate, requires measurement of phytoplankton numbers, diversity and functionality. Coccolithophores are thought to be particularly significant in regulation of climate as blooms result in rapid dumping of large volumes of carbon to the sea bed. These organisms are responsible for the majority of the mass of carbon deposited as chalk across Europe (including the White Cliffs of Dover).
Prochlorococcus are believed to be among the most abundant phytoplankton on the planet, but due to their small size are difficult to study with microscopic or cytometer analysis. Widespread use of biomolecular techniques to study Prochlorococcus will significantly advance understanding.
The right balance between relevant, feasible and efficient research.
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