Phytoplankton Ecology Program

Gary Kirkpatrick, Ph.D.
Senior Scientist, Program Manager
The Phytoplankton Ecology Program studies the makeup of the ocean’s phytoplankton community, particularly in the Gulf of Mexico, and the interactions among different micro-algal species. The Program includes a biology group and technology group.  

The biologists focus on phytoplankton ecology at the cellular, community and ecosystem levels with a particular interest in understanding photophysiology and bloom dynamics. One current objective is to establish how Karenia brevis, the organism that causes Florida’s red tide, fits into the succession of micro-algal species along the west coast of Florida.

The technology group focuses on developing better equipment to support the study of phytoplankton and are heavily involved in the engineering, deployment and maintenance of the Optical Phytoplankton Discriminator, also known as the BreveBuster™, an instrument developed at Mote that can, in near-real-time, determine the taxonomic composition of the in situ phytoplankton community. This device has been deployed on buoys, pilings and autonomous underwater vehicles to detect K. brevis and other species.

Biology Group
Scientists in the Phytoplankton Ecology Program study the microscopic plants in the oceans, many of which produce harmful toxins. It also addresses phytoplankton behavior, photophysiology and bloom dynamics.

One species of particular focus is Karenia brevis, the organism that causes Florida’s red tide. K. brevis produces potent neurotoxins that can affect humans and can kill sea animals. Understanding how K. brevis blooms form, how they persist and what causes their eventual demise is important to understanding how to lessen the impacts these blooms have on humans.

Technology Group
Mote studies of the K. brevis organism have led to the development and creation of new remote sensing technologies. In particular, the BreveBuster is an Optical Phytoplankton Discriminator that assesses the fraction of the phytoplankton biomass made up of select targeted species using optical absorbance characteristics of particles in the water.

In the simplest of terms, the BreveBuster takes in a water sample, shines a light on it then compares the light spectrum produced with the known light-absorbing characteristics of K. brevis. BreveBusters have been installed in automated underwater vehicles that can patrol the coast for hours to days, on mooring buoys and even on dock pilings. Because they are able to communicate with researchers via satellite, the information provided is in near-real time.

These efforts have also expanded to include improved OPD instruments, new designs of mobile toxin detection and collection instruments and a Bycatch Friendly Electronic Fishing Buoy. 

About Us

Mote Marine Laboratory has been a leader in marine research since it was founded in 1955. Today, we incorporate public outreach as a key part of our mission. Mote is an independent nonprofit organization and has seven centers for marine research, the public Mote Aquarium and an Education Division specializing in public programs for all ages.

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