Investigating Tiny Marine Plants for Clues to Future Climate

Sonya Dyhrman’s interest in marine biology began when she was a child, exploring tidal pools with her grandfather on the coast near her Tacoma, Washington, home.

Now a microbial oceanographer at Lamont and an associate professor in Columbia University’s Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences, Dyhrman conducts research on the tiny microbes in the ocean that play a large role in Earth’s climate. These phytoplankton, or algae, consume huge amounts of carbon—a byproduct of burning fossil fuels—and, through photosynthesis, release oxygen. Higher levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere have made the oceans more acidic, which could have a detrimental impact on marine life.

Microbial oceanographer Sonya Dyhrman studies the tiny microbes in the ocean that play a large role in Earth’s climate.

“We’re used to thinking about the importance of climate to green photosynthetic plants like grass and trees,” Dyhrman said. “People are less used to thinking about the very important role of oceans. Microscopic organisms in the oceans make the planet habitable for humans. Every other breath you take comes from microbes in the sea that produce oxygen.”

Dyhrman’s research adds important insight into the complex puzzle of global warming. The algae she studies are found in oceans around the world.  In addition to producing oxygen, they construct elaborate calcium carbonate shells that reflect light and influence Earth’s temperature, and they are an important source of food for ocean fish. By decoding their genome, scientists can better understand how different strains are influenced by changes in the environment and how they influence Earth’s systems as a whole.

In a way, Dyhrman says, her research is a continuation of what she was doing in high school, but with more advanced tools. “I now do things that I always wanted to do,” she says. “I’m passionate about microbiology in the context of how Earth works.”

Dyhrman is part of a team of scientists from 12 countries that recently sequenced the genome of a particular type of algae, Emiliania huxleyi, or Ehux. That seven-year effort revealed variable genes that mix and match with a set of core genes to allow the free-floating phytoplankton to adapt to different environments. She recently won a National Science Foundation grant that will let her continue her study of these and other algae, and how they are influenced by ocean acidification.

Besides her passion for research, Dyhrman is committed to education, particularly keeping young girls interested in math and science. She created the oceanography component of an educational website called Whyville, which is especially popular with 8- to 12-year-old girls. More than 1.2 million children have participated in Whyville’s oceanography activities, through which they can explore virtual environments, look at samples under a microscope and ask questions of an active scientist.

Through Lamont’s Climate and Life initiative, Dyhrman and her colleagues will continue to explore how climate change impacts life, ecosystems, and human sustainability. “It is incredible to think about how much global influence such a tiny little microbe can have,” said Dyhrman.