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How the big picture changes from tiny beginnings

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It pays to think small when forecasting environmental change. That's "small" as in bacteria, atmospheric molecules, or beetles. Individual activity on this small scale can add up to major environmental effects that computer-based forecast modeling doesn't adequately cover.

Take the toxic algae blooms such as the red tide that has appeared off Maine this month. Biologists don't understand how blooms start or stop. But they now have a clue to their demise thanks to research by Xavier Mayali, Peter Franks, and Farooq Azam at Scripps Institution of Oceanography. They found that microbes called RCA cluster bacteria attack red-tide organisms, which are 25 to 30 times their size. Several bacteria at a time attach to a red-tide cell and kill it. Professor Franks says it's "something like three chipmunks attaching themselves to an elephant and taking it down."

The experiments were run using red-tide samples taken off the institution's pier in San Diego. Judging from that small-scale study, Dr. Mayali says it's possible that the bacteria are important in "regulating algal-bloom dynamics in temperate marine waters all over the world." The Scripps announcement adds that Mayali's novel cultivation methods open "a new world of inquiry to understand the ecological roles of these organisms," which are ubiquitous in temperate and polar seas.


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