THE ECO-GENOMICS OF PHYTOPLANKTON: AN OUTLOOK ON THE FUTURE
Authors: Alberto Amato and Luisa Orsini
Abstract: The community structure and functioning of marine ecosystems is strongly dependent on eukaryotic phytoplankton, which dominates the modern oceans and is responsible for most flux of organic matter. Most importantly, higher trophic levels such as fish and marine mammals depend on short food chains driven by bloom-forming phytoplankton. Past genetic work on marine phytoplankton has mainly focused on descriptive studies, inferring the extent of biodiversity at or below the species level. More recently, the development of new genetic tools and the sequence of full genomes of a handful of phytoplankton species allowed a breakthrough in functional genomics and developed insights into key ecological processes, such as toxin metabolism, cell mortality processes, and DMSO metabolism. While these latter results represent an encouraging step forward in our understanding of phytoplankton communities, the link between biodiversity and the functioning of pelagic ecosystems is still missing. To interpret the biological processes driving biodiversity, a mechanistic understanding of single gene effects in natural populations and their feedback at community level is required. This can be achieved with the help of mesocosms (controlled environments), which scale up nicely to natural environments.