The National Science Foundation awarded Marine Science Institute Assistant Research Biologist Jeffrey Krause a $453,487 grant for his research on the photosynthetic prowess of phytoplankton, which may exceed that of tropical rainforests.

Krause’s research will determine which diatoms grow the fastest in a mixed field community by focusing on the rate they produce their shells. Diatoms are unique for their silica shells — essentially two-part glass encasements analogous to a Petri dish — on which species sculpt distinct patterns.

Krause said diatoms are the only major phytoplankton group requiring a high amount of silicon to grow and are an important food source due to the added nutrient.

“The research focus is to understand which species of diatoms are producing silica and at what rates in the field where diverse diatom communities persist,” Krause said in an email. “It will help inform us about which species are the most important and have strongest effect on structuring the food web.”

Marine Science Institute Director Mark Brzezinski said the diatom’s silica production plays an important role in the biological processes that maintain the carbon dioxide exchange between atmosphere and ocean.

“Scientists talk a lot about how much primary production — the amount of carbon dioxide organisms undergo during synthesis — different organisms do,” Brzezinski said. “Think about all the plants on the earth, from the ones in the rainforest to the seaweed in the ocean. Now, out of all of that, diatoms do 20 percent of carbon fixation on the planet. That is more than any other single group of organisms in the world.”

The microscopic, single-celled organisms are present in virtually any space with water and light and have large photosynthetic potential despite being invisible to the naked eye, according to Krause.

“Under the microscope, [diatoms] are absolutely beautiful,” Krause said. “Their shells are ornate and they have an amazing range of diversity.”

Krause said an informal budget is set aside from the grant to foster collaboration with scientific-outreach personnel from the MSI’s Oceans-to-Classrooms program.

“Ideally, if we can partner up with O2C, we can use some of our resources to develop outreach programs that highlight facets of this research and can communicate it on a broader scale, whether it be to elementary or high schools,” Krause said. “Hopefully we can develop a module of lessons that can bring plankton ecology science into classrooms and make it applicable to students.”

Department of Ecology, Evolution and Marine Biology Vice Chair Craig Carlson said the money will also help Krause investigate the factors that control a diatom’s growth and life cycle.

“It’s great for the National Science Foundation to recognize good questions and support strong young scientists in getting their independent research programs off the ground,” Carlson said. “[Krause’s] questions are very unique and are important in helping control lots of biogeochemical processes.”

Brzezinski, a phytoplankton ecology and physiology professor, said the funds will allow inquiry into an oft-overlooked area.

“I think [the grant] is wonderful and it will support his activities in the lab and oceanographic expeditions off the California coast,” Brzezinski said. “[Krause’s] research topic is one we have talked about exploring over the years but never got the opportunity to pursue in earnest, so I am really glad he has the chance to do this.”