The secret lives of microbes

Combining holographic microscopy and artificial intelligence allows researchers to observe the lives of individual phytoplankton and other microbes in seawater.

Phytoplankton – the foundation of the oceanic food chain. Image credit: NOAA MESA Project (CC BY 2.0)

Picture a glass of seawater. It looks clear and empty, but in reality, it contains one hundred million bacteria, about one hundred thousand other single-celled organisms, and a few microscopic animals. In fact, the majority of life in the ocean is microscopic and we know relatively little about it. Nevertheless, these microbes have a major impact on our lives. Microscopic algae known as phytoplankton, for example, produce half of the oxygen we breathe.

For animals, birds and other large organisms in the ocean, we have a good understanding of who eats who and where the material ends up. However, for phytoplankton and other microbes, we depend on bulk measurements and averages of large groups. Bachimanchi et al. developed a method to follow individual microbes living in seawater and to observe how they move, grow, consume each other and reproduce.

The team combined holographic microscopy with artificial intelligence to follow multiple planktons, diatoms and other microbes throughout their life span and continuously measured their three-dimensional location and mass. This made it possible to estimate how fast the organisms were growing and moving, and to observe what they ate. The experiments revealed new insights into how micro-zooplankton, diatoms and other microbes in the ocean interact with each other.

This new method may be useful for researchers who would like to track the movements and whereabouts of microscopic planktons, bacteria or other microbes for extended periods of time. It is also a rapid method for counting, sizing, and weighing cells in suspension. The hardware used in this method is relatively cheap, and Bachimanchi et al. have shared all the computer code with examples and demonstrations in a public database to enable other researchers to use it.