Tiny Creatures with a Big Impact

By Hannah Primiano

How small do you think phytoplankton are? You can guess, but I promise that the answer will surprise you. On average, they are about 80 microns. For reference, the diameter of one strand of hair is 75 microns. One type of phytoplankton, coccolithophores, can be as small as 5 microns – and using a 50-year-old microscope, we can see them clear as day.

These creatures are so tiny, but they have a gigantic impact on the world. Coccolithophores surround Antarctica in an area called the Great Calcite Belt. This feature makes up 16% of the world’s oceans. Coccolithophores turn bicarbonate into calcium carbonate plating and thus have a big impact on the carbon cycle. Carbon sequestration is an important topic especially in conversations around climate change. For something that is such a big deal, it is a bit surprising that I had never heard of them before working at Bigelow.

These are microscope images of a coccolithophore. Coccolithophores are birefringent, which means that under polarized light, the calcite plating glows as shown in the image on the right. This coccolithophore is about 20 microns in diameter.

I was beyond excited when I was accepted into Bigelow’s REU program. I was even more excited to hear that it planned to continue virtually during the pandemic. Some programs didn’t happen at all, so I count myself very lucky to have Dr. David Fields and the team at Bigelow who worked so hard to put together a program for the interns. The biggest question of course is how do you have a research internship online? I had no idea how the program was going to work. Quickly I discovered that science is more than just being in a lab. Science is more about data analysis than most people will give it credit for. Collecting data means nothing unless you decipher it. Luckily for me, Dr. Barney Balch, my mentor, had recently come back from a research cruise studying coccolithophores and had lots of data to analyze.

I was able to get access to microscope imagery from a recent cruise to the Southern Indian Ocean, where Dr. Balch had been studying coccolithophores. Looking at these photographs, it is easy to see that coccolithophores aren’t the only thing in this part of the ocean. These images showed a tiny world that I had never even considered. Something we discovered is that the coccolithophores were not the only things there. Phytoplankton called dinoflagellates were also present. Their relationship hasn’t been seen before let alone studied, so I’m working to quantify their relationship.

Even though there is a global pandemic and I’m 409 miles from the laboratory and 8,000 miles from where the data was collected, I still get to study the tiny world of coccolithophores and the huge impact that they have.

Hannah Primiano is a Drew University student in Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Science’s Research Experience for Undergraduates program. This intensive experience provides an immersion in ocean research with an emphasis on state-of-the-art methods and technologies.

Tiny Creatures with a Big Impact