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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Emerging Science Note

Air Date: Week of

Lauren Cox reports on the transformative power of one species of algae.


GELLERMAN: It’s Living on Earth. I’m Bruce Gellerman. Coming up: tea and tradition for two with a British tea master. But first this Note on Emerging Science from Lauren Cox.

[MUSIC: Anonymous “Transformers (Cartoon TV Theme)” from ‘The Transformers’ (1980’s)]

COX: When danger is near, the autobots in this summer’s blockbuster Transformers movie don’t turn to fight-or-flight, they change form. And just like the alien autobots morph when confronted by a foe, so does a species of algae native to earth.

Scientists at the Georgia Institute of Technology have discovered that a common species of ocean algae can dramatically change its shape and size to escape being eaten. The algae, called Phaeocystis, can detect what kind of sea creature is nearby from chemical signals in the water, it can then morph from a tiny single cell into a giant complex colony, or vice versa. The transformation is on the same magnitude as a single mosquito morphing into a dense swarm 70 times bigger than a blue.

By using the transforming trick, algae can increase their chance of survival by a hundred fold, and understanding the algae’s ability to transform might help us survive.

Algae absorb a significant amount of the carbon dioxide in the ocean, and the size the algae takes can determine where the greenhouse gas goes once the algae is eaten… If it’s a large colony it sinks to the ocean floor…if it’s a single cell, it stays near the ocean’s surface where there’s a greater chance it will be released back in the atmosphere.

Obviously, when it comes to algae in the ocean…there’s a lot more than meets the eye. That’s this week’s note on emerging science, I’m Lauren Cox.

[MUSIC: 2.) Mutemath “Transformers Theme” from ‘Transformers: The Movie’ (Warner Bros. – 2007)]



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