Posts Tagged ‘Algae’

Tiny but voracious marine organism studied — video

February 8, 2017

Tiny but all-consuming marine organism focus of UGA Skidaway Institute study

February 8, 2017
Marc Frischer

Marc Frischer

Doliolids are tiny marine animals rarely seen by humans outside a research setting, yet they are key players in the marine ecosystem, particularly in the ocean’s highly productive tropical and subtropical continental margins, such as Georgia’s continental shelf. University of Georgia Skidaway Institute of Oceanography scientist Marc Frischer is leading a team of researchers investigating doliolids’ role as a predator in the marine food web.

Doliolids are small, barrel-shaped gelatinous organisms that can grow as large as ten millimeters, or about four tenths of an inch. They are not always present in large numbers, but when they bloom they can restructure the marine food web, consuming virtually all the algae and much of the smaller zooplankton.

A doliolid with a cluster of juvenile doliolids on its tail. Actual size is approximately three millimeters, or one eighth inch.

A doliolid with a cluster of juvenile doliolids on its tail. Actual size is approximately three millimeters, or one eighth inch.

“The goal of this particular study is to find out what the doliolids are eating quantitatively,” Frischer said. “This is so we can understand where they fit in the food web.”

Scientists know from laboratory experiments what doliolids are capable of eating, but they don’t know what they actually do eat in the wild. They are capable of eating organisms as small as bacteria all the way up to much larger organisms.

“What they are eating and how much are they eating from the smorgasbord that is available to them, that is the question,” Frischer said. “We are investigating how much of those different prey types they are really eating out there across the seasons.”

The project involves intensive field work, including 54 days of ship time on board UGA Skidaway Institute’s Research Vessel Savannah. During the cruises they conduct trawls using special plankton nets to collect the doliolids. They also collect water samples to understand the conditions where the doliolids thrive.

Graduate students Lauren Lamboley and Nick Castellane deploy a plankton net from the Research Vessel Savannah.

Graduate students Lauren Lamboley and Nick Castellane deploy a plankton net from the Research Vessel Savannah.

“We take the doliolids and the water samples back to the laboratory, and that is where the magic begins,” Tina Walters, Frischer’s laboratory manager said.

Because the animals are gelatinous and very delicate, the researchers cannot use classical microscopic techniques to dissect the animals and analyze their gut content. Instead they extract DNA from the animals’ gut and use sequence-based information to determine what the doliolid ate.

“We go through a process called quantitative PCR,” Walters said. “So even though we can’t see the prey in a doliolid’s gut, because the prey have unique DNA sequences, we can identify and quantify them using a molecular approach.”

The three-year project is funded by a $725,000 grant from the National Science Foundation and will run until February 2018. Frischer’s collaborator on the project is Deidre Gibson from Hampton University. Gibson received her Ph.D. from the University of Georgia in 2000, and did much of her graduate research at Skidaway Institute with Professor Gustav Paffenhöfer.  In addition to Walters, Savannah State University graduate student Lauren Lamboley is part of the team, along with a number of students at Hampton University. Several undergraduate research interns have also participated in the project, gaining hands-on research experience. Frischer is also working with the Institute for Interdisciplinary STEM Education at Georgia Southern University to engage K-12 teachers by inviting them to participate in the research cruises.

Barents Sea Cruise 5-1-13

May 1, 2013

Skidaway Institute scientists Marc Frischer and Jens Nejstgaard are participating in a research cruise in the Barents Sea, north of Norway. This is an account of the experience from Marc.

First day of the cruise.  Everyone is excited and anxious.  We were all on board the ship by 9:00am and busy scurrying around making final preparations, securing instruments & lab gear and setting up the various work stations.  The crew was exceedingly helpful and efficient.

The Marine Tech was delayed in Oslo (coming by plane) so we couldn’t leave until he arrived.  He made it around noon and we were underway at about 12:45pm.  We headed north through the fjords.  The scenery was fantastic.  Calm water, snow and fog covered mountains, sun and clouds.  Not too much wildlife present, some seabirds.  The captain (Tom Ole) predicted that we’d see a lot of life near the ice edge, perhaps even whales.  Next week they have a whale observing cruise scheduled in the same area that we are heading to now.

Heading out to sea

Heading out to sea

After discussions with Aud Larsen and Jens Nejstgaaard we decided that due to our late departure we would head to immediately to the polar front and ice edge to take full advantage of the night to steam.  Of course night doesn’t really feel like night since it only gets dim for a few hours this far north this time of year, but for some reason we still get tired.  We also decided to stop a various points along our course to characterize the water and plankton communities.  We are occupying a standard transect used by IMR (Norwegian Institute of Marine Research) called Fugløya – Bjørnøya and are lucky that the previous week (25 – 29 April 2013) this line had been run giving us a pretty good idea of what we’ll find this week.  The data from the previous week indicated that water conditions are not unusual and that we could expect to reach the polar front approximately 225 NM north of our first sea station after leaving the fjords.

Our goal is to locate water masses containing the algae Phaeocystis pouchetti in various stages of its bloom cycle so that we can study how it is eaten (or not) by other organisms and thereby contributes to the food web.  It’s a very interesting and mysterious algae because of its importance as a major blooming algae in high latitude waters and because whether it is eaten seems to be highly variable.  We suspect that at times it is readily eaten and at others it is not and that this is mainly due to its ability to dramatically alter its size, chemically defend itself from predation and its resistance to ubiquitous viruses.  Despite the fact that this algae is slimy and smelly, all of us who study it love it because it’s so interesting.  We call the  project “Phaeo Enigma” because there is so much we don’t understand about this organism.

We stopped around 3:30 pm (13:30 GMT) in the fjord to take a quick sample.  The water column profile was classic textbook fjord with a chla maximum at about 23 meters.  The water contained big colonies of the algae we are studying (Phaeocystis pouchetti), but we are sticking with our plan to head north.

Continuing north we finally made it to our first sea station at 70 30 N 20 00 E.  Again, it was a quick stop to look at the water.  As we expected we found classic Norwegian Coastal Current water.  Phaeocystis was present here too, though at lower concentrations that we found in the fjords.  After a quick 30 min stop we were back on our way.

Since there wasn’t much to do most for the remainder of the evening, most of us thought it was prudent to turn in early for the evening.  Soon enough we will all be very busy!

Barents Sea cruise

April 30, 2013

Skidaway Institute scientist Marc Frischer is beginning a research cruise in the Barents Sea. Here is the first of his reports.

The cruise starts! We’re on the hunt for the enigmatic but globally significant algae Phaeocystis. We head north to the ice shortly aboard the Norwegian Research Vessel Hakon Mosby. I’ll try to update as I can.

Marc Boat 4-30


Skidaway Institute researchers published in international journal

June 14, 2012

Skidaway Institute of Oceanography scientists Jens Nejstgaard and Stella Berger are part of a 21-member, international team of researchers whose paper was recently published in the Journal of Experimental Marine Biology and Ecology.

The object of the research was to observe the effects of different light levels on the behavior of microscopic marine organisms. The team focused their efforts at a group of organisms called mixotrophs. Those are single-cell plankton that exhibit the characteristics of both animals (heterotrophs) and plants (autotrophs). They feed on other organisms, but they also can grow through photosynthesis, just like algae and other plants.

“Most higher organisms are either plants or animals, and we have therefore traditionally sorted most organisms in to these two groups, or fields of science: botany or zoology,” said Nejstgaard. “However, as our understanding of the smallest sized life on earth, single celled organisms is rapidly growing it appears that a large part of the life on Earth may be mixotrophs. This opens new focus of seeing, and investigating our ecosystems.”

The international team with Stella Berger (back row, center, with sunglasses) and Jens Nejstgaard (far right) conducting experiment with specially designed mesocosms, using neural (grey) optical films to simulate light levels on different depth’s down to 50 m in the Eastern Mediterranean.

Nejstgaard, Berger and their colleagues, collected natural water containing plankton and other organisms from the Eastern Mediterranean Sea near Crete and transported it to a into specially-designed tanks on land, called mesocosms, at the Hellenic Centre for Marine Research.  In the 30-cubic-feet mesocosms they adjusted light levels to simulate differences in ocean depths down to approximately 150 feet.

The researchers found the mixotrophs do react to different levels of light. In general, the organisms tended towards plant behavior in brighter light and animal behavior at lower light levels. However, they also found that response is very complex, and the entire team of  scientists that worked on the mesocosms are presently analyzing a large amount of data to clarify many of the ecosystem interactions in this complex system.

Global warming may mean big changes to marine ecosystems

July 20, 2011

As the Earth’s climate continues to warm, what kind of effects will we see in the ocean and the world in general? Seeking the answer to that broad question is one of the reasons scientists from the Skidaway Institute of Oceanography are working with an international team of scientists on an experiment in Bergen, Norway.

“There is really no doubt that our planet is changing,” said Skidaway Institute scientist Marc Frischer. “Levels of carbon dioxide are increasing, and we are seeing changes in climate. There is very little controversy about that anymore.”

According to Frischer, scientists need to investigate what those changes will mean to life in the ocean — from the tiniest bacteria up to fish and larger organisms.

“Those are the kinds of questions that are important to us humans, because we are dependent on the life in the oceans for our existence here on Earth,” added fellow Skidaway Institute scientist Jens Nejstgaard.

Frischer, Nejstgaard, Skidaway Institute research coordinator Stella Berger, and graduate student Zachary Tait are part of a team of 37 scientists who have come together from 13 countries to join their individual expertise in an effort to solve some of these very complicated questions.

Skidaway Institute mesocosm research team (l-r) Zac Tait, Jens Nejstgaard, Marc Frischer and Stella Berger

“What’s happening with climate warming is not only are we increasing temperature, we are also increasing the carbon dioxide (CO2)which has the effect of acidifying the ocean – just like a can of cola,” said Frischer. “In this experiment we are studying not just temperature or acidity individually, but their combined synergistic effects”.

What makes it so complicated to study is that there are many different organisms interacting with each other, and at the same time reacting differently to the climate change.

“So instead of just picking out a few organisms to look at in the laboratory, we have to investigate large representative pieces of the ecosystems to tell what effect the climate changes will have on the environment,” said Nejstgaard.

The experiment was conducted at a mesocosm facility of the University of Bergen. There, the scientists could enclose two and a half cubic meters of natural seawater in each of 14 tanks, recreating an ecosystem with all the biological and chemical components that exist in the natural water column. They are called mesocosms because they represent intermediate systems that are bigger than a laboratory test tube but smaller than the ocean. The researchers changed the temperature and CO2concentrations in the mesocosms, and then observed how the various parts of the ecosystem reacted.

The Bergen mesocosm facility

“Mesocosms provide the opportunity to conduct controlled experiments that are impossible to do either directly in the ocean or in the laboratory,” said Nejstgaard.

The team also added a third factor to the experiment. Gelatinous organisms are an important part of the oceanic ecosystem, but typically they are fragile and do not survive the process of pumping seawater into the mesocosm tanks. In order to more closely mimic the natural marine environment, the researchers added tiny gelatinous organisms called appendicularians as representative “jellyfish” to the tanks after they were filled.

The Bergen mesocosm facility is the longest continuously operating mesocosm facility in the world. It has run for 33 years and Nejstgaard has led international experiments there for the two last decades.

Since 2009, Nejstgaard has directed the first European coordination of mesocosm facilities, MESOAQUA (, together with Berger as a scientific coordinator. Although Nejstgaard relinquished his position in Bergen in order to join the faculty of the Skidaway Institute of Oceanography in January 2011, Berger maintains a part time position in the MESOAQUA program. Frischer and other Skidaway Institute scientists have been collaborating with the Bergen facility for more than a decade. This was their fifth experiment there.

The funding for this experiment was complicated. Both American and European scientists applied for research grants. The Europeans got their funding; the Americans did not. The funding came from the Norwegian Research Council, the Nordic Council of Ministers (NordForsk) and MESOAQUA. Luckily two of the three European grants provided some travel support for non-Europeans, making it possible for the Skidaway team to participate.

Although the team was international, the original design for the project came from a small group including Frischer, Nejstgaard and Norwegian colleagues. Their primary focus was on the effect ongoing changes would have on oceanic bacteria. Very preliminary results look good for bacteria, but not so much for the rest of the marine ecosystem.

“Our preliminary data suggests that rising acidity increases bacterial activity, which has some profound implications on how the ocean is going to change,” Frischer said. “If conditions favor the growth of more bacteria, they will benefit at the expense of other types of microscopic marine life, particularly marine algae like phytoplankton.”

Phytoplankton are a major part of the bottom of the food web. Their productivity has a direct effect on the food supply for microscopic animals (zooplankton) and all larger marine animals. On the other hand, energy that goes into the bacteria is believed to just cycle among very small organisms that are hard for the larger organisms to eat. If that is so, the global warming spell even more problems for the ocean’s already troubled fisheries.

“When you start looking at how all the little pieces are connected, those insights we gain will help us understand how our planet will change and what that will mean,” Frischer concluded. “That is what we are trying to learn and it is important to every aspect of our society.”

Since it is important to investigate the effect of environmental changes on different natural communities, the Skidaway Institute team hopes to be able to obtain funding to continue experiments in Bergen, and elsewhere, including in our own backyard.

“We hope to develop a world-class mesocosm research center at the Skidaway Institute of Oceanography where we believe the potential exists for the Institute to become a leading facility for the region,” said Nejstgaard. “Such a center would contribute to future studies of the many environmental challenges that face our region.”

Skidaway Institute scientists use microscopic algae to track coastal water quality

January 12, 2009

As burgeoning growth on the Georgia Coast puts additional pressure on the fragile coastal environment, scientists at the Skidaway Institute of Oceanography are researching new techniques to monitor coastal water quality.liz-mann-lab-1

Scientists can measure water quality several ways. One method is to measure the water’s chemical characteristics, such as oxygen and nutrient concentrations. Skidaway Institute researcher Elizabeth Mann is investigating another technique – using a group of microscopic organisms as a bioindicator of water quality.

“When you measure the chemical composition of the water, you essentially get a snap shot of all the individual components in the water at the time you take your sample,” Mann said. “We are trying to determine if the micro-organisms in the water will give us a better picture of water quality because living cells must adapt to all of the stresses in an environment over a longer time span.”

Mann’s research focuses on one of the smallest of microscopic algae or phytoplankton called cyanobacteria. These organisms are less than 2 microns in size and form the base of the food web. Like plants, cyanobacteria such as Synechococcus contain chlorophyll and manufacture their own food through photosynthesis.

Cyanobacteria have many characteristics that make them potentially good indicators of water quality. Synechococcus are abundant in Georgia’s coastal waters and are relatively easily isolated and grown in the laboratory. They can also be identified and counted using flow cytometry, a technique that can accurately count up to 500 cells a second.

“Cyanobacteria can serve like a canary in a coal mine,” said Mann. “Changes in Synechococcus populations may help monitor the condition of the environment in which they live because these small phytoplankton are more sensitive to toxic metals such as copper and cadmium than larger marine algae.”

Mann is examining the water quality in the Savannah River by comparing conditions in that heavily industrialized estuary to the more pristine Altamaha River.

The abundance of cyanobacteria, including Synechococcus, is much lower in the Savannah River than in the relatively pristine Altamaha,” Mann said. “Not only is the total number of cyanobacteria lower in the Savannah River, but certain types of microbes abundant in the Altamaha River are essentially absent from the more heavily impacted Savannah River.

In addition, Mann said, adding water from the Savannah River to populations of estuarine phytoplankton from more pristine locations leads to a decrease in the abundance of cyanobacteria and other small phytoplankton.

Mann’s work is just beginning. A next step will be to identify the types of contaminants responsible for low Synechococcus numbers in the Savannah River and to determine what effect stunted cyanobacteria populations have on the larger organisms in the food web that prey on these small plants.

Algae could be key to new energy source

May 19, 2008

by James Sanders
Director, Skidaway Institute of Oceanography

Biofuel from algae has re-emerged in the news as a promising alternative to traditional sources of energy. Many experts believe that algae will eventually surpass all other biofuel feedstocks as the cheapest and most environmentally-friendly way to produce liquid fuel.

Corn is currently the only commercially-viable source of ethanol fuel production, but it is an environmentally-taxing process. Growing demand for corn due to the expansion of ethanol has increased concerns that environmentally sensitive lands will return to production. These lands have the potential for environmental damage if they are farmed. In addition, the use of corn for ethanol greatly reduces its availability for food products, thus generating higher food prices for consumers.

There are other, more environmentally-friendly ways of producing ethanol. Much of the ethanol industry is focused on the potential of converting cellulose to ethanol. This includes materials such as corn stalks, wheat straw, grasses, trees, etc. Cellulose ethanol production would allow farmers to harvest perennials appropriate for their area, rather than forcing corn onto lands that are not well-suited to support it. The energy bill signed into law last year requires that 44 percent of ethanol be derived from cellulose by 2022. Production of cellulose ethanol, however, is still at an experimental stage and faces a number of challenges. Ultimately, however, if researchers can streamline the process, then ethanol could be made from a variety of plant materials.

The notion of using vegetable oil for fuel has been around as long as the diesel engine. The main source of food oil based biodiesel is the soybean, but unless soybean oil prices decline dramatically, biodiesel cannot be produced in large quantities at a cost that is competitive with petroleum diesel.

Algae, on the other hand, can be used to produce biodiesel fuel and has a potential energy yield many times higher than that of soybeans. An average acre of algae grown today for pharmaceutical industries can produce 5,000 gallons of biodiesel each year. Algae need only sunlight, water, nutrients, and carbon dioxide to grow, have extremely fast growth rates, and some types of algae comprise 50 percent oil. It should not come as a surprise, then, that algae is being viewed by some as an attractive alternative to vegetable crops for energy production.

In fact, this knowledge is nothing new. The US Department of Energy began investigating algae in the 1970s. The Aquatic Species Program, as it was called, grew algae in open pond test sites in Hawaii, California and New Mexico. Although the project achieved maximum yields of more than one hundred times that of oil palm (oil palm is among the most efficient of conventional crops) the program was abandoned in 1996 because the low cost of crude oil made it difficult for alternative fuels to compete and because of inadequate knowledge of the biology involved in alternative fuel production.

As oil and food prices recently began to increase, small algal fuel producers have arisen. Nevertheless, algae still has not been proved as an economic proposition. The challenge is coming up with economical systems.

The algae-to-biofuels community is mainly focused today on super strains cultivated in bioreactors (vessels in which biochemical processes are carried out). Using this technology, commercially-viable production of biofuels is still years away. This may be true when it comes to the use of bioreactors, but some experts claim that open-pond systems are commercially viable now and that these systems may be the only hope for keeping capital costs low enough for algae-to-biofuel technology to be commercially viable in the future.

An economic environment that can support low production costs, research expertise in marine algae, and in the conversion to a useful energy product, may all be key to the development of a commercially-viable algae-to-energy enterprise which would give us an abundance of local low-cost fuel.