Researchers rethink fate of celebrity plankton

A widespread plankton has startled marine biologists by thriving in seawater doctored in the lab to simulate conditions predicted for the year 2100. The plankton, a coccolithophore called Emiliania huxleyi, had become an iconic species for the perils of greenhouse gas buildup. Since the beginning of the industrial era, humans have added enough carbon dioxide to the atmosphere to nudge seawater closer to acidity. Previous studies of E. huxleyi that used different methods of simulating future seawater showed reductions in the usual covering of round, overlapping calcite plates. But in the new study, the plankton formed their proper covering in waters resembling what the ocean could become when the atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration reaches 750 parts per million, says M. Debora Iglesias-Rodriguez of the National Oceanography Centre of the University of Southampton, England. In the April 18 Science, she and her colleagues also reported that, during the last 220 years of carbon dioxide buildup, coccolithophore mass in subpolar North Atlantic sediments increased 40 percent. Marine biologist Jean-Pierre Gattuso of the Laboratory of Oceanography of Villefranche in France says the contradictory results are confusing, but that “it’s so important to understand this to predict the future of the oceans.” —Susan Milius

Susan Milius

Susan Milius is the life sciences writer, covering organismal biology and evolution, and has a special passion for plants, fungi and invertebrates. She studied biology and English literature.

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