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Research Spending & Results

Award Detail

Doing Business As Name:Skidmore College
  • Margaret Estapa
  • (207) 944-6707
Award Date:12/08/2016
Estimated Total Award Amount: $ 76,915
Funds Obligated to Date: $ 76,915
  • FY 2017=$76,915
Start Date:12/15/2016
End Date:11/30/2018
Transaction Type:Grant
Awarding Agency Code:4900
Funding Agency Code:4900
CFDA Number:47.050
Primary Program Source:040100 NSF RESEARCH & RELATED ACTIVIT
Award Title or Description:Collaborative Research: EAGER: Particle-specific DNA sequencing to directly observe ecological mechanisms of the biological pump
Federal Award ID Number:1703422
DUNS ID:020670741
Parent DUNS ID:020670741

Awardee Location

Street:815 North Broadway
City:Saratoga Springs
County:Saratoga Springs
Awardee Cong. District:20

Primary Place of Performance

Organization Name:Skidmore College
Street:815 North Broadway
City:Saratoga Springs
County:Saratoga Springs
Cong. District:20

Abstract at Time of Award

Carbon is fixed into organic matter by phytoplankton growing in the surface ocean, and is naturally sequestered in the ocean interior when particles and organisms sink: a process called the "biological pump." Because of its recognized influence on the global carbon cycle, ocean scientists have studied the biological pump for decades. However, we still do not have a sufficient understanding of the underlying processes to accurately quantify and predict carbon cycling. Much of this uncertainty stems from an inability to directly link specific plankton in the surface ocean with the types of particles sinking out of the surface ocean. To address this missing link in biological pump research, this work will directly observe how plankton are transported out of the surface ocean using novel, particle-specific observational approaches embedded within an interdisciplinary field program that will finely resolve upper ocean plankton groups and the resulting amount of sinking carbon across space and in time. The genetic identity of organisms within different types of sinking particles will be determined by sequencing the genetic contents of individually collected particles. This new application of a molecular method will definitively link surface plankton with sinking particles at five locations across the Pacific Ocean. This work has the potential to transform our understanding of the biological pump by identifying previously unknown links between surface ecosystems and sinking carbon particles. Because this work is embedded within an interdisciplinary field program, including biogeochemical modelers and remote sensing scientists, these data will feed directly into new models of the biological pump, improving our ability to quantify and predict carbon uptake by the ocean. This project will train 1 graduate student and at least 2 undergraduate researchers. Findings will be communicated to the non-scientific public through blogs, videos, and the public communication channels of participating institutions. Accurate prediction of the global carbon cycle requires an understanding of the specific processes that link surface plankton communities and sinking particulate carbon flux (export) out of the surface ocean, but current methodological paradigms in biological pump research do not directly observe these processes. This project will comprehensively determine who is exported from the surface ocean and how using new, particle-resolving optical and molecular techniques embedded within a sampling scheme that characterizes export events at high time and space resolution. The investigation suggests that different plankton types in the surface waters are transported out of the surface ocean by distinct export pathways, and that an understanding of these connections is critical knowledge for global carbon cycle modeling. If successful, this work has the potential to transform our conceptual understanding of the biological pump by directly identifying mechanisms that link surface plankton with particle export, without relying on bulk sampling schemes and large-scale correlation analysis. Particle export environments will be studied at five open ocean locations during a cruise from Hawaii to Seattle in January-February 2017. The surface plankton communities will be characterized by a combination of satellite observations, sensors attached to a free-drifting, continuously profiling WireWalker, an in situ holographic camera, microscopy, and by sequencing 18S and 16S rRNA gene fragments. Exported particles will simultaneously be captured by various specialized sediment traps and their characteristics will be directly related to their sources in the surface community by identifying the genetic contents of individual particle types. Individual particles will be isolated from gel layers and the 16S and 18S rRNA gene fragments will be amplified and sequenced. This work would, for the first time, combine molecular approaches with particle-specific observations to enable simultaneous identification of both which organisms are exported and the processes responsible for their export.

Project Outcomes Report


This Project Outcomes Report for the General Public is displayed verbatim as submitted by the Principal Investigator (PI) for this award. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this Report are those of the PI and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation; NSF has not approved or endorsed its content.

This study tested whether different types of microscopic algae, animals, and their waste products sink out of the surface ocean and into deeper waters in different amounts, and with differing efficiencies.  These sinking particles are part of the natural transfer of carbon out of the surface ocean and into deeper water, sometimes called ?the biological pump?.  The sinking particles are important because they contain carbon that can be sequestered from the atmosphere for a long time in deep water, or used as food by microbes and animals living in deep water.  We used new genetic sequencing methods to determine what kinds of microscopic algae and animals (aka ?plankton?) sank out of the surface ocean and to infer reasons for why they sank. We studied the sinking particles at three, contrasting open ocean locations between Hawaii and coastal California, in February 2017.  We measured plankton and their waste in the ocean in several ways:  1) by chemical analysis of samples collected with sediment traps, which catch sinking particles in the ocean, 2) by putting sensors on a WireWalker, which is a wave-powered device that rapidly travels up and down on a wire hanging beneath a drifting buoy, 3) using an underwater holographic camera, 4) by genetic sequencing, and 5) by microscopic imaging of particles collected in the sediment traps. By using a variety of methods, we comprehensively characterized the upper water column, the types of particles that sank out, and the variability of sinking particles in different locations.

Intellectual Merit:

In order to measure and predict the amount of carbon sinking from the surface ocean into deep water, we must understand the relationships between the different types of plankton in the surface ocean, and the processes that cause them to sink in certain settings.  The current understanding of the biological pump is based on studies that measure overall amounts and chemical compositions of sinking particles, but not the specific details of how organisms contribute to the sinking particle flux.  This study aimed to combine new, detailed observational methods to measure particle size, shape, and biological origin, with other more traditional methods.

Broader Impacts:

This project involved multidisciplinary collaboration, supported 3 early-career female scientists, and provided several undergraduate and graduate student training opportunities. An undergraduate course was taught on board a research ship using telepresence to connect to students in the Inner Space Center at the University of Rhode Island, and results were presented to the public in a ?Science on Tap? talk in Saratoga Springs, NY.  This work has also been communicated to the non-scientific public through blogs, videos, and the public communication channels of our participating institutions.  The scientific outcomes are being presented at conferences and will be published in scientific journals.


Last Modified: 03/29/2019
Modified by: Margaret Estapa

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