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Marine algae show resilience to carbon dioxide emissions

National Oceanography Centre, UK

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IMAGE: The image shows two Emiliania huxleyi coccoliths, one grown under present day CO2 conditions, and one grown under CO2 levels over four times the present day. Diameters are 4.5 micrometres... view more

Credit: Bethan Jones

A type of marine algae could become bigger as increasing carbon dioxide emissions are absorbed by the oceans, according to research led by scientists based at the National Oceanography Centre, Southampton (NOCS).

The study, published this month in PLoS ONE, investigated how a strain of the coccolithophore Emiliania huxleyi might respond if all fossil fuels are burned by the year 2100 - predicted to drive up atmospheric CO2 levels to over four times the present day. Specimens grown under this high CO2 scenario were compared with specimens grown under present day CO2 levels.

Coccolithophores are microscopic algae that form the base of marine food chains. They secrete calcite shells which eventually sink to the seafloor and form sediments, drawing down and locking away carbon in rocks. Because of their calcitic shells, some species have been shown to be sensitive to ocean acidification, which occurs when increasing amounts of atmospheric CO2 are absorbed by the ocean, increasing seawater acidity.

But these findings suggest that not all coccolithophore species respond to ocean acidification in the same way.

"Contrary to many studies, we see that this species of coccolithophore gets bigger and possesses more calcite under worst-case scenario CO2 levels for the year 2100," says Dr Bethan Jones, lead author and former researcher at University of Southampton Ocean and Earth Science, which is based at NOCS. "They do not simply dissolve away under high CO2 and elevated acidity."

However, the researchers also observed that cells grew more slowly under the high CO2 scenario, which could be a sign of stress.

The researchers also tested for changes in protein abundance - using a technique developed by the collaborating institutes - as well as other biochemical characteristics. They detected very few differences between the two scenarios, indicating that apart from growth, this strain of coccolithophore does not seem to be particularly affected by ocean acidification.

Co-author Professor Iglesias-Rodriguez, formerly at University of Southampton Ocean and Earth Science, says: "This study suggests that this strain of Emiliania huxleyi possesses some resilience to tolerate future CO2 scenarios, although the observed decline in growth rate may be an overriding factor affecting the success of this ecotype in future oceans. This is because if other species are able to grow faster under high CO2, they may 'outgrow' this type of coccolithophore.

"Given that chalk production by calcifiers is the largest carbon reservoir on Earth - locking away atmospheric CO2 in ocean sediments - understanding how coccolithophores respond to climate change is a first step in developing models to predict their fate under climate pressure such as ocean acidification."

The team used a technique called 'shotgun proteomics', optimised for marine microbiological research at the University of Southampton's Centre for Proteomic Research, to detect changes in proteins under the different CO2 scenarios.

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The collaborative study involved researchers at University of Southampton Ocean and Earth Science (which is based at NOCS), University of Southampton Institute for Life Sciences, University of Southampton Centre for Proteomic Research, University of Cambridge, University College London and Xi'an Jiaotong-Liverpool University, China.

Notes for editors

1. Reference: Bethan M. Jones, M. Debora Iglesias-Rodriguez, Paul J. Skipp, Richard J. Edwards, Mervyn J. Greaves, Jeremy R. Young, Henry Elderfield, C. David O'Connor (2013) Responses of the Emiliania huxleyi proteome to ocean acidification. PLoS ONE, dx.plos.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0061868

2. The image shows two Emiliania huxleyi coccoliths, one grown under present day CO2 conditions, and one grown under CO2 levels over four times the present day. Diameters are 4.5 micrometres and 6 micrometres, respectively. The images were taken using a scanning electron microscope.

3. The shotgun proteomic method combines tandem mass-spectrometry with isobaric tagging (iTRAQ) and multiple database searching. This can give two types of information: (1) the identity of proteins that are differentially expressed under different CO2 scenarios; and (2) the functional properties of an organism. While the genome gives static information about the genetic make-up of a cell, the proteome tells us about what the cell is doing and exactly how its machinery is affected by ocean acidification.

4. This research was conducted as part of Dr Bethan Jones' NERC-funded PhD project within the Graduate School of the National Oceanography Centre Southampton (GSNOCS), and then an EU-funded postdoc with University of Southampton Ocean and Earth Science which is based at NOCS.

5. Dr Bethan Jones is now based at Rutgers University, USA. Dr Debora Iglesias-Rodriguez is now based at University of California Santa Barbara, USA.

6. Related paper: Iglesias-Rodriguez et al. (2008) Phytoplankton Calcification in a High-CO2 World. Science Vol. 320 no. 5874 pp. 336-340 DOI: 10.1126/science.1154122

7. The National Oceanography Centre (NOC) is the UK's leading institution for integrated coastal and deep ocean research. NOC operates the Royal Research Ships James Cook and Discovery and develops technology for coastal and deep ocean research. Working with its partners NOC provides long-term marine science capability including: sustained ocean observing, mapping and surveying, data management and scientific advice.

NOC operates at two sites, Southampton and Liverpool, with the headquarters based in Southampton.

Among the resources that NOC provides on behalf of the UK are the British Oceanographic Data Centre (BODC), the Marine Autonomous and Robotic Systems (MARS) facility, the National Tide and Sea Level Facility (NTSLF), the Permanent Service for Mean Sea Level (PSMSL) and British Ocean Sediment Core Research Facility (BOSCORF).

The National Oceanography Centre is wholly owned by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC).

Contact information

Catherine Beswick, Communications and Public Engagement, National Oceanography Centre, catherine.beswick@noc.ac.uk, +44 238 059 8490.

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