Oxygen, phytoplankton, and Physics

On 2012-Mar-21, in Biology, by paul

Recenlty, I listened to a fascinating RadioLab podcast about the battle that rages between phytoplankton in the ocean (called coccolithophores) and the viruses that like to use the plankton as hosts to reproduce. Here’s a picture from the RadioLab site:

An electron microscope picture of coccolithophores (from the RadioLab site

That’s a pretty amazing exterior—it’s designed to protect against viral invasion; but according to the scientist William Wilson, it’s not entirely successful. In any case, the podcast (which you should now listen too) goes on to detail the battle between the coccolithophores and the viruses and the many contortions that occur during the battle. The IMPRESSION I was left with was that there is a constant stream of evolutionary adaptations that occurr (read: mutations) that make the battle continue. The interesting things to me are:
a) a full 50% of the oxygen we breathe come from the phytoplankton that live in the ocean,
b) the battle between the coccolithophores (and presumably other plankton) creates a varying (sinusoidally? with what period? random? or not?) output of Oxygen into the atmosphere.

I’m really interested in (b). What does the time/space dependence of this battle (i.e the phytoplankton blooms/die-off) look like? What are the governing parameters that effect this battle? Ocean temp? seasonal solar gain? presence of other types of plankton? Is there anything to be gained by trying to simulate this? How would one model this realistically?

William Wilson — if you’re ever passing through Portland, I’d love to hear more about these critters over a pint of beer.

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