New technology maps the movement of microscopic algae, crucial to the health of the oceans

The movement patterns of microscopic algae can be mapped in greater detail than ever before, providing new insights into the health of the ocean, thanks to new technology developed at the University of Exeter.

The new platform allows scientists to study in unprecedented detail the movement patterns of microscopic algae. The idea could have implications for understanding and preventing harmful algal blooms, and for the development of algal biofuels, which could one day provide an alternative to fossil fuels.

Microscopic algae play a key role in ocean ecosystems, form the basis of aquatic food webs, and sequester most of the world’s carbon. Therefore, the health of the oceans depends on the maintenance of stable algae communities. There is growing concern that changes in the composition of the oceans, such as acidification, could disrupt algal propagation and community composition. Many species move and swim to locate sources of light or nutrients, in order to maximize photosynthesis.

The new microfluidic technology, now published in eLife, will allow scientists to trap and image individual microalgae swimming inside droplets for the first time. The cutting-edge development has allowed the team to study how microscopic algae explore their microenvironment and to track and quantify their behaviors over the long term. Importantly, they characterized how individuals differ from one another and respond to sudden changes in the composition of their habitat, such as the presence of light or certain chemicals.

Lead author Dr Kirsty Wan, from the University of Exeter’s Institute for Living Systems, said: “This technology means that we can now investigate and advance our understanding of swimming behaviors for any microscopic organism, in detail that is not has been possible before. This will help us understand how they control their swimming patterns and the potential for adaptability to future climate change and other challenges.”

In particular, the team has discovered that the presence of interfaces with strong curvature, in combination with the microscopic spiral swimming of organisms, induces a macroscopic chiral movement (always clockwise or counterclockwise) observed in the average trajectory of cells. .

The technology has a wide range of potential uses and could represent a new way to classify and quantify not only the ambient intelligence of cells, but also complex patterns of behavior in any organism, including animals.

Wan added: “Ultimately, our goal is to develop predictive models for swimming and culturing microbial and microalgae communities in any relevant habitats leading to a deeper understanding of present and future marine ecology. Knowledge of the detailed behavior that occurs at the individual cell level is therefore an essential first step.”

The article is entitled “Phenotyping of single cell motility in microfluidic confinement” and is published in eLife. This study was carried out in collaboration with microfluidic expert Dr. Fabrice Gielen (also from the University of Exeter’s Institute for Living Systems) and Dr. Marco Mazza (Loughborough University).

– This press release was originally published on the University of Exeter website

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