Understanding the ocean's tiny climate makers

In summary: 
  • New Chancellor's Postdoctoral Research Fellow Dr Katherina Petrou is investigating the influence of the ocean's microscopic phytoplankton on climate
  • Her 2012 Endeavour Executive Award is helping to foster collaborative links between UTS researchers and international specialists from Spain's Institút del Ciencies del Mar

Microscopic phytoplankton are at the base of the ocean's food chain, but that's not the only way they support other life. The role these marine microorganisms play in regulating climate is the interest of newly appointed UTS Chancellor's Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Dr Katherina Petrou.

Dr Petrou will use her background in phytoplankton photobiology and physiology to research the impacts of light and UV radiation on sulphur production in phytoplankton, gathering new knowledge on the role of sulphur in phytoplankton photosynthesis.

Oceanic phytoplankton play an important role in the biogeochemical cycling of sulphur compounds: sulphur released from the ocean to the atmosphere oxidises, forming aerosols that can lead to cloud formation, affecting the Earth's radiative energy balance.

Recently, research has shown strong correlations between sulphur production and light, yet the mechanisms and molecular processes linking the two remain poorly understood. Dr Petrou will investigate the physiological and molecular processes that link phytoplankton sulphur production and light.

As a result of winning a 2012 Endeavour Executive Award she has been based at the Institút del Ciencies del Mar (ICM) in Barcelona, learning the latest techniques to accurately measure marine sulphur concentrations.

"The Endeavour Executive Award has given me the opportunity to spend three months at the ICM in the laboratory of Dr Rafel Simó, who has designed and optimised techniques for the accurate measurement of marine sulphur concentrations and sulphur cycling activity in marine microbial communities," Dr Petrou said.

"I've had the chance to work closely with world experts and develop the necessary skills to enhance my studies on marine sulphur cycling. With this new knowledge, I can deliver world-class data on understanding controls on sulphur production in phytoplankton and the role sulphur plays in phytoplankton physiology and biochemistry."

Dr Petrou, who will undertake her research at UTS within the Plant Functional Biology and Climate Change Cluster (C3) Aquatic Processes Group, is confident her Endeavour Award will continue to have an impact well beyond her initial visit.

"The linking of two strong research laboratories via this newly established relationship has the potential to lead to many opportunities for joint experimental work, research funding and marine research voyages," she said.