Emiliania Huxleyi

Belle Of The Ball

230 MYA

"Emily" is a planktic protoctist; this photosynthesizing alga spends time freely floating in the upper layers of the ocean, gathering solar energy. Though only a half a thousandth of an inch in diameter, Emiliania huxleyi plays an expanding role in Earth's climate through both coccolith formation and gas emission.

A major geological force, proliferating populations ("blooms") of this alga extract carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to form calcium carbonate shells that ultimately settle to carpet the sea floor, covering areas larger than all the continents.

In "bloom," Emily's gas emissions are equally potent. As their sulfur-containing gas wafts into the atmosphere, solar radiation transforms it to sulfuric acid. The droplets of acid serve as nucleation sites for water condensation and the formation of ocean cloud cover.

Top: This SEM (scanning-electron micrograph) shows off Emily's almost Baroque "coccoliths" (buttons). This environmental activist designs and bio-manufactures one plate every two hours, sending each to its proper place on the outside of the cell. (Photograph by Annelies Kleyne)

Bottom: The microbial 50 kilometer-wide bloom extends 200 kilometers along the coast of Scotland. When satellites first picked up these images, boats immediately went out to explore, but the shell coccoliths of Emily's body were invisible to the unaided eye. Under a laboratory microscope, Emily and cohorts appeared aplenty. (Illustration by Patrick Holligan)


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