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Fight or flight for phytoplankton

NSF Award:

Infrastructure to Advance Life Sciences in the Ocean State  (University of Rhode Island)

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Scientists know that phytoplankton can control their movements in the water and move toward light and nutrients. Now, University of Rhode Island (URI) researchers have observed these microscopic aquatic organisms fleeing from predators--a previously undiscovered ability in a photosynthetic organism. The flight response constitutes the difference between life and death for these tiny plants, and ensures the continuation of the many functions they perform in the marine ecosystem.

URI doctoral student Elizabeth Harvey and oceanographer Susanne Menden-Deuer observed that the phytoplankton Heterosigma akashiwo swam differently in the presence of predators and groups of them shifted their distribution away from the predators. Phytoplankton flee not only in the presence of the predatory zooplankton, but when in water that predators previously occupied. When the scientists provided the phytoplankton with refuge in an area of low salinity water that predators cannot tolerate, the phytoplankton moved to the refuge.

If some types of phytoplankton grow uncontrolled, harmful algal blooms form, producing toxic compounds and creating an unhealthy and sometimes lethal environment. The observation of algae fleeing from predators offers another explanation of how blooms could form and provides insight into how individual microscopic behavior leads to a macroscopic phenomenon with a far-reaching and formidable impact beyond the borders of the Ocean State.

The discovery of phytoplankton survival skills transforms and improves understanding of how the marine ecosystem operates and what contributes to the ocean's health. Guided by this knowledge, researchers can better preserve and protect Rhode Island's valuable economic resource for generations to come.


  • phytoplankton flees from predatory zooplankton
Phytoplankton flees from predatory zooplankton.
Elizabeth Harvey, University of Rhode Island

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