Can microbes evolve fast enough to outpace the changes humans are making to their environments?

Human beings are pumping billions of tons of CO2 into the atmosphere through the use of fossil fuels. We know that these changes will result in alterations to Earth’s biogeochemistry — parts of Earth will get hotter, parts will get colder, and the ocean will become much more acidic. We would like to be able to predict how fast those changes will happen, but as anybody who follows public affairs knows, our predictions need to be a lot better than they are. One major gap in our knowledge is how microorganisms will respond to human-caused change.

MorrisLab is funded by the National Science Foundation to explore how evolution might mitigate the impacts of anthropogenic change on marine microbial populations. We are funded to study the long-term adaptation of important phytoplankton — diatoms, coccolithophores, and picocyanobacteria — to ocean acidification, the drop in ocean pH caused by rising atmospheric CO2 concentrations.

We are one of only a handful of labs in the world using experimental evolution methods to ask ecologically-relevant questions. This study will produce a unique resource of evolved phytoplankton cultures that will allow many projects to be “spun off”, essentially limited only by the imaginations of the young scientists that come work for us. We hope to do for the ocean’s green things what Richard Lenski did for E. coli — and what two generations of Prof. Lenski’s students and postdocs have made their careers on.