TAMU-CC Leads $1.38 Million NSF Collaborative Research Study, Focuses on Amino Acids in Phytoplankton

CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas — Phytoplankton are among some of the smallest microorganisms on earth, yet they have an enormous ripple effect on the aquatic food web and climate on this planet. Researchers at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi are currently working to investigate the unique chemical signatures produced by phytoplankton thanks to a $1.38 million collaborative research grant courtesy of the National Science Foundation’s Biological and Chemical Oceanography Programs.

Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi will work with the University of Maryland-Center for Environmental Science and the University of Massachusetts-School for Marine Science and Technology on the project that takes a deep dive into the phylogenetic and physiological characterization of amino acid nitrogen isotopes in phytoplankton.

Dr. Lin Zhang, Principal Investigator and TAMU-CC Associate Professor of Oceanography, said the study is necessary to learn more about the sources of nutrients that support phytoplankton communities.

“These chemical signatures are passed along to organisms that consume phytoplankton throughout the food web, mainly in the form of amino acids,” Zhang said. “Thus, these chemical signatures of individual amino acids can be used to retrieve the information regarding the sources of nutrients supporting food webs and to estimate the trophic position of organisms.”

Specially designed pumps
Specially designed pumps to filter vast
volumes of seawater in-site
to collect plankton and particles

The trophic position of an organism, or where an organism can be found in the food web, is important because it can affect many aspects of its ecology and behavior, including its energy use, reproduction, and interactions with other organisms.

Zhang, alongside a team of Islander student researchers, will collect and analyze chemical signatures of individual amino acids.

Aiding in this process will be a new Purge and Trap Isotope Ratio Mass Spectrometer. The new addition to Zhang’s lab, expected to arrive in fall 2023, will enable the compound-specific isotope research of key organic and inorganic materials in one location.

The grant prioritizes the inclusion of a cohort of undergraduate students from underrepresented groups to gain key experience using cutting-edge equipment in the field. One such student is TAMU-CC biomedical science major and McNair scholar Marysa McAllister ’24.

“To be able to perform experiments and learn about the various equipment used in the laboratory is truly invaluable to me and my peers,” McAllister said. “This experience will provide me with significant hands-on research skills and knowledge that will benefit me greatly in both my academic and professional pursuits.”

Various plankton and fish larvae collected in the ocean
Various plankton and fish larvae
collected in the ocean

According to Zhang, while this research is important to the scope of marine science, the findings may also be applicable in other fields including biomedical and forensic sciences.

“The isotopic signatures of amino acids can be used in cancer research, sports nutrition, aging, and other situations involving physiological changes in protein,” Zhang said. “It can also be used in forensic studies to investigate human remains and determine the source of dietary protein, which can be crucial in identifying unknown individuals, reconstructing migration patterns, and linking suspects to crime scenes.”

The research, which started in spring 2023, is estimated to wrap up in March 2026. Islander faculty and students interested in participating in the current research study can email Zhang at lin.zhang@tamucc.edu.