Scheme: University Research Fellowship
Organisation: University of Edinburgh
Dates: Oct 2015-Sep 2018
Summary: Microbes are the foundations on which ecosystems are built. I work on photosynthetic microbes – unicellular plants. These small but mighty organisms form the nutritional basis for marine food webs, so are important for ecosystem services that we use, like fisheries. They also take up carbon through photosynthesis, and have the potential to export atmospheric carbon to the deep ocean and affect the exchange of carbon dioxide (a greenhouse gas) between the ocean and the atmosphere. Although individual marine microbes are tiny, there are so many of them that they do half of the photosynthesis on the planet: they produce half the oxygen we breathe!
Under global change, the oceans are becoming more acidic. Microbes are the foundation of the ecosystem, and if the foundation shifts, the entire system will probably be affected. I work to uncover the basic, general “rules” of how microbes respond to complex environmental changes, like ocean acidification. Marine microbes have large population sizes and can reproduce quickly, they evolve (change genetically) on short timescales. I use a combination of computer simulations and laboratory evolution experiments to build and test theory to understand their evolution. I collaborate with oceanographers to make sure that this theory informs our understanding of how marine ecosystems may respond to ocean acidification.
Some examples of my ongoing research are: What genetic changes happen when microbes evolve in high CO2? Do the same changes always happen? What do short-term responses that don’t involve genetic change tell us about evolution, which does? And finally, since global change involves many aspects of the environment changing at once, how is adaptation different in the face of many simultaneous environmental changes than it is when only one aspect of the environment changes?
Dates: Oct 2010-Sep 2015