WHOI Study Shows Warmer Waters Affecting Phytoplankton

MIT/WHOI Joint Program student Bennett Lambert assists with deploying FlowCytobot (FCB) at the WHOI-operated Martha’s Vineyard Coastal Observatory. Underwater connections to FCB supply power and real-time two-way communication at this ocean observatory (Photo by Sean Whelan, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)

MIT/WHOI Joint Program student Bennett Lambert assists with deploying FlowCytobot (FCB) at the WHOI-operated Martha’s Vineyard Coastal Observatory. Underwater connections to FCB supply power and real-time two-way communication at this ocean observatory (Photo by Sean Whelan, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)

WOODS HOLE – A multiyear study conducted by scientists at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution has shown that changes in ocean temperature affect a key species of phytoplankton.

The study, which was published October 21 in the journal “Science,” tracked levels of a tiny bacterium common in marine ecosystems, known as Synechococcus, off the Massachusetts coast for 13 years.

As ocean temperatures increased over that time period, the study found that the annual blooms of Synechococcus occurred up to four weeks earlier than usual due to the cells dividing faster in warmer water.

WHOI biologist Heidi Sosik says shifts like these could have a major impact on marine ecosystems across the world.

As temperatures continue to rise, some ecosystems could become more and more dominated by small phytoplankton leading to shifts that could affect the livelihoods of larger marine species like fish, whales and birds.

Although the phytoplankton cells reproduced more quickly to size of the blooms did not increase much over the course of the 13-year study.

Scientists found that as the bacteria reproduced more quickly they were also consumed more quickly by tiny protozoa, viruses and other single-celled organisms.

The research team was able to determine the division rates of the bacteria using a mathematical model and data from an automated sensor developed by WHOI scientists called FlowCytobot which sampled seawater for 13 years.

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