While it might take a microscope to see them, the single-celled plants that inhabit the sea perform a number of important functions that can affect not only the health of fish but the health of the entire planet.
On Thursday, August 13, at 7:00 p.m. at the University of Delaware Graduate College of Marine Studies (CMS) in Lewes, oceanographer David Hutchins will present a public lecture, "Microscopic Plants in the Sea: Can Single Cells Really Affect Global Climate Change?," as part of the "Ocean Currents Lecture Series" initiated earlier this year by CMS in honor of the International Year of the Ocean. In addition to giving a general introduction to the sea's microscopic plant life, called phytoplankton, Hutchins will talk about the significant impact these tiny plants can have on local to global scales.
"The microscopic plants of the ocean are both interesting and beautiful, and they play a number of important roles in the aquatic ecosystem," Hutchins says. "These tiny plants serve as the first vital link in the food chain, providing fish and other organisms with food. Yet a small, but interesting segment of phytoplankton can cause toxic effects on marine life," he notes. "Some of the most common species include red tides, brown tides, and Pfiesteria, which have become notorious for their impacts on finfish, shellfish, and even human health."
Recently, Hutchins has been conducting research to explore the role of phytoplankton in global climate change. Carbon dioxide is one of the gases associated with the greenhouse effect -- the heating up of the Earth's atmosphere. Thanks to phytoplankton, the Earth's oceans can help soak up carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. In the food-making process of photosynthesis, phytoplankton use the sun's energy to draw carbon dioxide from the air.
However, as reported in a recent issue of the scientific journal Nature, Hutchins has found that certain coastal waters can't sponge up carbon dioxide because they lack iron. "The supply of iron can limit the growth of phytoplankton in large areas of the ocean," Hutchins says. By better understanding the relationship between phytoplankton and iron, scientists can better determine how much carbon dioxide marine plants are capable of removing from the atmosphere, thus helping to ameliorate global warming.
Hutchins joined the CMS faculty in 1996. He received his bachelor's and master's degrees from Portland State University and his Ph.D. from the University of California at Santa Cruz. Prior to joining CMS, he was an adjunct assistant professor at the Marine Sciences Research Center at the State University of New York at Stony Brook.
Hutchins' lecture will begin at 7:00 p.m. in Room 104, Cannon Laboratory, at the Hugh R. Sharp Campus, 700 Pilottown Road, Lewes. The hour-long talk will be followed by light refreshments.
While the lecture is free and open to the public, seating is limited and reservations are required. To reserve your seat for Hutchins' presentation, please contact the college at (302) 645-4279. For more information about CMS, visit the college's Web site at www.ocean.udel.edu.