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Simulating plankton migrations on a tabletop

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Funding Year: 2023

Research Areas: Oceans

Every day, tiny drifting plants and animals known as plankton ascend with starlight and sink as the sun rises, sometimes traversing up to several miles in their vertical migration, in the largest daily movement of biomass in the world. Given the vast depth and timescale, plankton distribution is difficult to study, though scientists estimate that plankton convert nearly half of all atmospheric carbon into more stable forms and store it for long durations. A team led by Manu Prakash, associate professor of bioengineering and a senior fellow at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment, seeks to further develop a “rotating microscope” they’ve designed to characterize the behavior of individual plankton. For the first time, a single cell or organism traveling long distances along a vertical axis can be imaged and tracked, linking cellular physiology to ecosystem scales. In this next phase, the Prakash Lab will develop methods for manipulating climate variables such as light, temperature, salinity, pressure, and nutrients. By enabling a “virtual reality” in this tracking microscope, the team can build long-term data sets of plankton migration and map future behavior based on predicted ocean conditions.

Learn more about the Big Ideas for Oceans grant program and other funded projects.

Principal Investigators:

Manu Prakash (Bioengineering, Biology, Oceans), Prakash Lab

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Tiny plankton play a huge role in regulating natural systems, but they remain poorly understood. Stanford bioengineer Manu Prakash leads an international effort to develop innovative, low-cost tools that could help enable citizen scientists to monitor oceans and contribute to climate change solutions.

Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment