Thursday, June 14, 2012

Maine study finds potentially disastrous threat to single-celled plants that support all life

BOOTHBAY, Maine — Phytoplankton. If the mention of the tiny plant organisms that permeate the world’s oceans isn’t enough to pique your interest, consider this: They produce the oxygen in every other breath you take.

Still not interested? This is where it’s hard not to take notice. In 2007, the reproduction rate of phytoplankton in the Gulf of Maine decreased suddenly by a factor of five — what used to take a day now takes five — and according to a recently released study by the Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences in Boothbay, it hasn’t bounced back.

So what does it mean? According to Barney Balch, the lab’s senior research scientist and lead author of the study, such a change in organisms at the bottom of the planetary food chain and at the top of planetary oxygen production could have disastrous consequences for virtually every species on Earth, from lobsters and fish that fuel Maine’s marine industries to your grandchildren. But the 12-year Bigelow study focused only on the Gulf of Maine, which leads to the question, will it spread?

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