BEACON Researchers at Work: Climate effects on algae… and undergrads

This week’s BEACON Researchers at Work blog post is by MSU graduate students Jakob Nalley and Danny O’Donnell, with University of Texas undergraduate Farhana Haque.

From left to right: Jakob Nalley, Farhana Haque, Dr. Elena Litchman, Danny O'Donnell

From left to right: Jakob Nalley, Farhana Haque, Dr. Elena Litchman, Danny O’Donnell

Go ahead, take a deep breath, and let it out. Almost half of the oxygen you breathed in came from the phytoplankton, or algae, that live in nearly every body of water on the planet with access to light (even your fish tank). Although they are extremely small, phytoplankton are a fundamental component of the biosphere, forming the base of aquatic food webs, fixing large amounts of atmospheric carbon, and photosynthetically producing nearly half of the oxygen we breathe. Phytoplankton live in an environment that is ever-changing through space and time, so to persist they must be able to respond to rapid environmental change (e.g. temperature, nutrient availability, grazer density). Global climate change has potentially large direct and indirect effects on the diversity and abundance of phytoplankton around the world, with far-reaching consequences for organisms at higher trophic levels. However, it is unclear how phytoplankton may respond plastically (in the short term) or evolutionarily (on longer timescales) to increased temperatures and nutrient inputs, and how these changes might then reverberate through the ecosystem.

Dr. Elena Litchman’s lab focuses, in part, on investigating how global climate change may influence phytoplankton physiology, competitive ability, biomass production, and community structure. This summer, through the BEACON funded Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) program at the Kellogg Biological Station (KBS), we were extremely fortunate to have the opportunity to continue this temperature work with an outstanding undergraduate, Farhana Haque, from the University of Texas – Austin. Farhana worked on two separate research projects, both focusing on how temperature influences the ecology and evolution of phytoplankton species and communities.

Photo of Litchman stocks to illustrate algal diversity

The REU program aims to expose young scientists to unique research experiences to which they may not otherwise have access at their home university. It is apparent from the success of her summer research (and its contribution to furthering the research goals of our lab) that Farhana’s experiences at KBS were unique in a number of ways. The most striking being she had to travel over one thousand miles to get her first taste of ecological and evolutionary research. After gaining a better understanding of the applications eco-evolutionary research can have, through the work we do in the Litchman lab, the simply “classical science” (as Farhana once described it) developed into a rich, very much modern, and extremely attractive science.

KBS has a unique way of cultivating enthusiasm for ecological research. It is a small field station where professors’ doors are always open, and graduate students are eager to interact with anyone that is willing to listen. Through some interesting eco-evolutionary research and tremendous opportunities to interact with a number of eminent scientists, this REU experience was clearly transformative for Farhana, and ecological and evolutionary research are now firmly on her radar.  Here are some of Farhana’s reflections on her research experience at KBS.

Apparently, undergraduates aren’t much different than algae. When I first arrived at KBS in Hickory Corners, Michigan at the beginning of summer I was forced to bundle up in the balmy 70-degree weather. As a native Texan, I handled three-digit temperatures without a sweat, but froze in the Gull Lake breeze. While I put on a jacket, algae also employ different strategies to deal with their changing environment. And with rising temperatures, the algae in the ocean will have to adapt to their environment.

Farhana at the KBS Undergraduate Research Symposium (8/6/14)

Farhana at the KBS Undergraduate Research Symposium (8/6/14)

This summer, as a BEACON REU student in the Litchman lab at KBS, I measured the change in cell-size in algae as a response to temperature. I worked under the guidance of two graduate students, Jake Nalley and Danny O’Donnell. At first, it was a bit confusing. Two different people working on two different doctoral theses. How could I, an undergraduate from another school, fit in? With the help of my mentors and our PI Dr. Elena Litchman, we carved out a project by using a major theme in ecological systems: evolution. By tracking the change of cell-size with temperature change, I was able to see significant trends. With short-term growth algae tends to shrink as it heats up and we attributed our change to plasticity, trait changes without genetic modification. Over long-term growth at a warmer temperature, algae cell-size is expected to shrink (though my tenure here was too short to see genetic change in our algae, you’ll have to go to Danny for updates!).

Evolution turned out to be my cohesive force, which I feel made my experience so much more satisfying. A common complaint I hear among my peers entering into the world of research (me included) is that our minimal projects are dead-ends. Collaboration is key to escaping the rut. As a biochemistry major, I felt like I brought more to the table when my mentors and I would modify experiments. UT has amazing computer scientists and statisticians, while MSU has a unique field station that brings the natural world to the lab bench. Danny and Jake saw nuances that ecologists at Michigan State would appreciate, while I saw my own brand of chemistry in everything. With a healthy dose of enthusiasm and hard work, we were able to work together and discover some exciting trends in algae. 

**For more about Jake’s work visit his website or email him at nalleyja at msu dot edu

**For more about Danny’s work email him at odonn146 at msu dot edu

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