Research ArticleAPPLIED ECOLOGY

Chain formation can enhance the vertical migration of phytoplankton through turbulence

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Science Advances  16 Oct 2019:
Vol. 5, no. 10, eaaw7879
DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.aaw7879

Abstract

Many species of motile phytoplankton can actively form long multicellular chains by remaining attached to one another after cell division. While chains swim more rapidly than single cells of the same species, chain formation also markedly reduces phytoplankton’s ability to maintain their bearing. This suggests that turbulence, which acts to randomize swimming direction, could sharply attenuate a chain’s ability to migrate between well-lit surface waters during the day and deeper nutrient-rich waters at night. Here, we use numerical models to investigate how chain formation affects the migration of phytoplankton through a turbulent water column. Unexpectedly, we find that the elongated shape of chains helps them travel through weak to moderate turbulence much more effectively than single cells, and isolate the physical processes that confer chains this ability. Our findings provide a new mechanistic understanding of how turbulence can select for phytoplankton with elongated morphologies and may help explain why turbulence triggers chain formation.

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