Limits to Evolutionary Adaptation of Phytoplankton in the Arctic Ocean

Lead Research Organisation: University of East Anglia
Department Name: Environmental Sciences


Global warming is rapidly altering ocean temperature, pH, carbon saturation state, circulation, and oxidation state, and this will impact the community composition of phytoplankton; the primary producers in the world's oceans. Predicting which marine phytoplankton species will persist and dominate under these changing environmental conditions requires an understanding of the adaptive evolutionary potential of these species. With this project, we will improve understanding and predictive capability of the dynamics of polar marine phytoplankton communities, especially diatoms, and the limits of their adaptive capacities in response to environmental change driven by global warming. As single-celled microbes with large population sizes and high replication rates, phytoplankton species have considerable potential to adapt rapidly to changing environmental conditions. This can happen by (i) individual organisms adapting their phenotypes through epigenetic processes (i.e. phenotypic plasticity), (ii) by natural selection acting on individual genotypes, and by (iii) group selection (i.e. lineage and species-sorting). These three fundamental levels of selection result in changes in physiology, population genetic composition and community structure, respectively, which in turn can drive changes in both biogeochemical cycles and higher trophic levels. These adaptive changes already occur in the Arctic Ocean, yet existing climate models fail to capture these combined ecological and evolutionary adaptive responses. This proposal aims to address this fundamental gap in knowledge by studying adaptive evolution at the level of the genome, epigenome and transcriptome of a model species for polar diatoms, Fragilariopsis cylindrus, as well as 10 diatom species from the Arctic Ocean. We will thus address how environmental changes such as the loss of sea ice in the Arctic Ocean will impact the adaptive evolution and diversity of key primary producers with consequences for biogeochemical cycles in an ecosystem that is under extreme threat by global warming.

Planned Impact

Who will benefit from this research?

The main beneficiaries of our research besides those in academia are:
A) Wide audiences such as the public and students at schools
B) Policy makers (UK Government Office for Science; Foresight Future of the Sea)
C) Start-up teams and biotech companies in the field of algal biotechnology

How will they benefit from this research?

A1) There is strong public interest in polar environments with significant press coverage on polar climate change (e.g. BBC). Our work will not only contribute to that but focus the attention to an ecosystem component (phytoplankton) which has huge implications for ecosystem services (e.g. fisheries) that are key for the well-being of human societies. Furthermore, our work is going to unravel evolutionary processes of adaptation in Arctic organisms, which has barely been addressed in any Arctic species yet. Even before our very recent Nature paper (Mock et al., (2017) Evolutionary genomics of the cold-adapted diatom Fragilariopsis cylindrus; to be published online ahead of print on the 16th January 2017) was published online, it received significant interest from editors of other Nature-branded journals such as Andrew Hufton (Nature Scientific Data) and Patrick Goymer (Nature Ecology and Evolution) to either publish companion papers or Behind the Paper Blog Posts, respectively.

B1) Policy makers will benefit from this work as the results will be used to product reports on the impacts of global warming on phytoplankton in the Arctic Ocean and they can also feed into reports on how to exploit marine genetic resources in the Arctic. Mock advises the UK Government Office for Science (Foresight Future of the Sea) in terms of the impact of global warming on the oceans and the exploitation of marine genetic resources.

C1) Start-up teams and algal biotech companies will potentially benefit from our research by obtaining new insights how the evolution of algae impact their ability to produce storage compounds (sub-cellular resource allocation). Our work will likely identify genes that make algae resilient to stress and increase their growth under these conditions. This knowledge is essential for optimizing algal strains for biofuel production and production of high-value end products such as polyunsaturated fatty acids. Past funding from industry (e.g. Roche, AltEnergis) indicates significant interest in discovering novel genes (molecular bioprospecting) with potential use in biotechnology. Currently, Mock is engaged with several industrial partners (e.g. AltEnergis, Supreme Biotechnologies) and has been awarded the NERC Pathfinder Grant in 2014 (NE/M005755/1). He will continue to collaborate with his industrial partners to explore the market potential of genes to advance biotechnology with algae.

What will be done to ensure that potential beneficiaries have the opportunity to engage with this research?

Advising the UK Government Office for Science (Foresight Future of the Sea): We will continue to be engaged either directly with the UK Government Office for Science (Mr. Jack Laverick) or via Royal Society working groups (Mr. Richard Walker) as we currently do. Events and approaches to disseminate: Dissemination to the public will be done by press releases. Furthermore, we are going to present non-sensitive data on open days at UEA. Mock and Moulton have a strong track record in communicating science to differing audiences including industrial partners. Furthermore, we will continue to collaborate with our industrial partners through exchange visits and jointly attending conferences.
Description The award is just in its second year. However, we can already see that there are significant differences in the genetic repertoire of isolates from the same phytoplankton species obtained from different locations in the Arctic Ocean. This suggests local adaptation.
Exploitation Route Too early to say
Sectors Chemicals,Education,Energy,Environment,Government, Democracy and Justice,Manufacturing, including Industrial Biotechology