Investigation of Abundant but Understudied Phytoplankton to Provide Critical Data for Biogeochemical Models

2015 Seed Grant

Award Period: 2015-2018

Marine phytoplankton account for about half of annual global primary production. They are responsible for the oxygenation of the atmosphere and surface ocean, and thus support life on both land and sea. As the basis of the marine food web, phytoplankton drive the “biological pump” whereby CO2 from the atmosphere is sequestered in the deep ocean. Ward and her team propose to obtain crucial molecular and physiological data on the most abundant phytoplankton species in natural assemblages — rather than the usual model species — and to use those data to target natural phytoplankton assemblages with the ultimate goal of improving biogeochemical models based on remotely sensed data for the characterization and prediction of primary and new production (and thus carbon sequestration via the ocean’s biological pump).

Beyond the contributions to fundamental research and education, this project will provide: essential data for understanding ocean ecosystem structure and helping to predict changes in the ocean that may occur in response to global change caused by anthropogenic factors; undergraduate-research experience through internships and senior-thesis research; and undergraduate-mentoring experience for graduate students and postdoctoral researchers.

The project began in Summer 2015 with the work of Sunyoung Wang, Class of 2016, and associate research scholar Nicolas Van Oostende, who are cultivating diatoms and picoeukaryotes in order to evaluate their nitrate and ammonium utilization capacities.

Post doctoral researcher Nicolas Van Oostende (left) and PEI Summer Intern Sunyoung Wang (right) using the NOx Box (in the hood to the right) to measure nitrate concentrations in phytoplankton cultures.


Educational Impacts

The main avenue of undergraduate involvement in the project is through laboratory research. Sunyoung Wang, Class of 2016, worked via PEI’s Internship Program in Summer 2015 to culture phytoplankton and perform experiments to determine their nutrient-uptake kinetics.

Participating Department


William J. Sinclair Professor of Geosciences and the Princeton Environmental Institute

Research Associates

Undergraduate Students