Some like it acidic

In a world of altered oceans, a shelled plankton species may flourish

As carbon dioxide levels in the air rise and turn the oceans more acidic, some forms of life may thrive, not suffer. Shelled plankton could be resilient in higher-carbon conditions, new research finds.

SHELLY PLANTS Shell-creating plankton Emiliania huxleyi make smaller shells (shown) under present conditions than they may in a higher-carbon future, new research suggests. Univ. of California, Santa Barbara

Scientists had thought that higher ocean acidity would make it harder for plankton to create their calcium carbonate shells. Researchers led by Debora Iglesias-Rodriguez of the University of California, Santa Barbara studied how acidification would affect Emiliania huxleyi, single-celled aquatic plants that make shells called coccoliths. The shells’ purpose is unclear, but they are fundamental parts of the organisms.

In the lab, the scientists grew the creatures in seawater with different amounts of CO2 bubbled in, including one pool with air that, at 1,340 parts per million, had 3.4 times more CO2 than today’s atmosphere. That carbon level simulates the atmosphere in 2300 if humans burn all Earth’s stores of fossil fuels.

Creatures in more acidic water made coccoliths that were about 17 percent longer than ones grown under current carbon conditions. Still, it wasn’t all good news: The cells grew a bit more slowly, the researchers report April 12 in PLOS ONE. The plankton could lose ground to faster growing species in a more acidic future.

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