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Can Sea Life Adapt to Climate Change?

Antarctic Phytoplankton

Bethany Goodrich '11 (left) Austin Gajewski '13 (center), and Deneb Karentz, USF professor of biology and environmental science, collect phytoplankton samples at hole they cut in the ice covering in the Antarctic ccean. 

Phytoplankton are the oceans' canaries in a coalmine for USF's Deneb Karentz, which is why she travels to one of the coldest places on earth to learn how these microscopic life forms are adapting to climate change. 

Her three-year research project in Antarctica is among the first to investigate how phytoplankton respond to seasonal changes in temperature and light at a genomic level. Phytoplankton are the foundation of the ocean's food web, and their health affects larger marine life, said Karentz, professor of biology and environmental science.

Specter of global warming 

"Our main hypothesis is that the differences between phytoplankton species that succeed and those that don't can be identified at the molecular level," said Karentz. "This could provide important insight into how phytoplankton cells respond to environmental changes, such as global warming, ozone depletion, and ocean acidification."

Some phytoplankton species, of which there are hundreds, thrive in the cold and dark of the Antarctic winter, but others multiply in summer, with its longer daylight and warmer waters. Karentz is trying to understand which of the phytoplanktons' genes "turn on" or "turn off" with these changes in heat and light. 

Two USF undergraduates, Bethany Goodrich '11 and Austin Gajewski '13, accompanied Karentz to the cold continent. They helped with everything from collecting water samples and counting phytoplankton to measuring sea temperature, salinity, and clarity at different depths.

Field work vs. textbooks

Gajewski, a biology major, called his experience "invaluable," but was shocked by how time-intensive the research was. "Each data point we collected required going out on the ocean for several hours then several more hours analyzing it back in the lab," he said. "To make proper scientific observations takes much longer than I ever imagined. Textbooks never really go into all the experiments behind the results they teach." 

With its extreme variations in temperature and light, Antarctica may be ideal for this research, but it's not ideal for the researchers. "During our field season at the end of winter and early spring, we dealt with harsh weather conditions in Antarctica, where temperatures dropped to about 10 degrees Fahrenheit," said Karentz. "The field work was very challenging." Karentz has conducted research at Palmer Station, Antarctica, since 1986. 

The project is a collaboration with Joseph Grzymski from the Desert Research Institute in Nevada. The work is funded by two grants worth more than $700,000 from the National Science Foundation.

Written by Taylor Fredericks »email usfnews@usfca.edu | Twitter @usfcanews