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MIT's ocean model captures diversity of underwater forests

CAMBRIDGE, Mass.--Scientists at MIT have created an ocean model so realistic that the virtual forests of diverse microscopic plants they "sowed" have grown in population patterns that precisely mimic their real-world counterparts.

This model of the ocean is the first to reflect the vast diversity of the invisible forests living in our oceans-tiny, single-celled green plants that dominate the ocean and produce half the oxygen we breathe on Earth. And it does so in a way that is consistent with the way real-world ecosystems evolve according to the principles of natural selection.

Scientists use models such as this one to better understand the oceans' biological and chemical cycles and their role in regulating atmospheric carbon dioxide, an important greenhouse gas.

The output of the new model, the brainchild of oceanographer Mick Follows, has been tested against real-world patterns of a particular species of phytoplankton, called prochlorococcus, which dominates the plant life of some ocean regions.

Follows and co-authors report this work, part of the MIT Earth System Initiative's new Darwin Project, in the March 30 issue of Science. The Darwin Project is a new cross-disciplinary research project at MIT connecting systems biology, microbial ecology, global biogeochemical cycles and climate.

"The guiding principle of our model is that its ecosystems are allowed to self-organize as in the natural world," said Follows, a principal research scientist in MIT's Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences (EAPS), lead author on the paper and creator of the model. "The fact that the phytoplankton that emerge in our model are analogous to the real phytoplankton gives us confidence in the value of our approach."

One of Follows' collaborators, Penny Chisholm, the Lee and Geraldine Martin Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering and Biology and director of the Earth Systems Initiative, has made
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Contact: Elizabeth Thomson
thomson@mit.edu
617-258-5402
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
29-Mar-2007


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