Where did we come from? Super tiny algae that N.J. professor studies could hold the answer

[USA] New Jersey scientist Dr. Paul G. Falkowski has spent his entire career studying single-cell organisms found in the ocean called phytoplankton.

Last week Falkowski, 67, of Princeton, and Marine ecologist James J. McCarthy of Harvard University were presented with the Tyler Prize for Environmental Achievement — known as the Nobel Prize for the environment — for their work on the biological processes of the ocean, climate and the inhabitability of the earth.

Even before the award, the Rutgers’ professor’s resume was pretty impressive:

  • He works on projects that are funded by NASA.
  • He was elected to the National Academy of Sciences.
  • He founded the Rutgers Energy Institute.
  • He’s participated in more than 45 expeditions to the subtropical Atlantic, Antarctica and the Black Sea.
  • He is currently tenured as the Bennett L. Smith Chair in Business and Natural Resources at Rutgers University.
  • Falkowski, a biological oceanographer, has spent his 42-year career trying to answer the questions of “Where did we come from?” and “Are we alone?”

And the tiny organisms he studies could hold the answers to both.

A field trip when he was about 9 years old to the Museum of Natural History’s Hayden Planetarium sparked his interest in learning how oxygen got to the earth, he said.

He later learned it came from splitting water by the photosynthetic process.

“I found that we don’t know this process very well,” he said. “and I became interested in the simplest organisms that do this.”

Enter phytoplankton, microscopic algae that float through the ocean and photosynthesize sunlight in order to stay alive.

Falkowski’s research on the little organisms has contributed to some big discoveries:

1. The oxygen these tiny plants make helped life develop on earth.He studied how the microbes made earth inhabitable through the evolution of photosynthesis, and how it has changed over geological time. (The earth is 4.5 billion years old. Between 4 and 3.8 billion years ago, life began. Oxygen arrived about 2.3 billion years ago. And animals arrived about 630 million years ago.)

2. We can better measure how much things photosynthesize. Falkowski invented a technique – Variable Fluorescence – 20 years ago to measure vast quantities of phytoplankton at one time. He found when you shine a pulse of light onto the phytoplankton, they re-emit some of the light. They take the blue light that is shined on them and reemit it as red. This allows scientists to measure photosynthesis in the ocean more efficiently.

3. Photosynthesis from marine life is where we get most of our oxygen from. This more vast view of photosynthesis showed scientists that even though the ocean only has about 1 percent of the world’s plant material, it is responsible for 50 percent of the planet’s photosynthesis. And plankton produced all the oxygen on earth for the first 2.5 billion years.

4. Climate change is real. Unlike the plant life on land, the ocean’s biomass responds instantly to climate change. The circulation of the ocean provides the nutrients for the phytoplankton to grow. Added heat to the ocean is causing plant life in the upper ocean to decline because the nutrients aren’t there for the phytoplankton to survive. The ocean is becoming less productive and fewer fish will be supported in the future.


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