A chemical culprit responsible for the rapid, mysterious death of phytoplankton in the North Atlantic Ocean has been found by collaborating scientists at Rutgers University and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI). This same chemical may hold unexpected promise in cancer research.
The team discovered a previously unknown lipid, or fatty compound, in a virus that has been attacking and killing Emiliania huxleyi, a phytoplankton that plays a major role in the global carbon cycle.
"Emiliania huxleyi is the rock star of phytoplankton," explains Kay Bidle, Rutgers assistant professor of marine science in the Institute of Marine and Coastal Sciences. "It blooms all over the oceans, and we can easily see it by satellite. We know that these blooms are frequently infected with viruses, and this virus is specific to this phytoplankton."
"The lipids are the key ingredient in the virus that causes the phytoplankton to die," says WHOI scientist Benjamin Van Mooy. "We have a completely different lipid molecule that, as far as we know, is unknown to science."
E. huxleyi grows rapidly in the North Atlantic, "in these big blooms that you can actually see from outer space," Van Mooy says.
"But," adds Van Mooy, "they die just almost as quickly as they start out, and we're not sure why. They die after a few days."
Bidle and Assaf Vardi, a postdoctoral investigator in his laboratory and the study's lead author, had been examining the interaction between the virus and the dying phytoplankton and had developed ideas for how this process works. After Vardi heard lipid expert Van Mooy give a talk in Santa Fe, N.M., he suggested the collaboration between WHOI and Rutgers.
"I saw Ben's talk on marine microbes and lipids[and] I ran after him," said Vardi. "We told him about our ideas" involving the virus's effect on the phytoplankton.
"They studied the viruses and I study lipids
|Contact: Media Relations|
Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution