Week of 15-March, 2008
Vol 173 (11), p. 170
Terrie Klinger is starting to wonder about the future of kelp sex. It's a delicate business in the best of times, and the 21st century is putting marine life to the acid test.
Klinger, of the University of Washington in Seattle, studies the winged and bull kelps that stretch rubbery garlands up from the seafloor off the nearby Pacific coast. These kelp fronds do no luring, touching, fusing of cells or other sexy stuff. Fronds just break out in chocolate-colored patches.
The patches release spores that swim off to settle on a surface and start the next generation. The new little kelps don't look as if they belong to the same species, or even the same family, as their parents. The little ones just grow into strings of cells, but these are about sex.
"Those of us who have spent far too long looking at this can tell the males from the females," says Klinger. The subtly female-shaped filaments form eggs and release kelp pheromones to call in the male filaments' sperm.
Sex filaments have kept kelp species going for millennia, but Klinger says she wants to know what's happening now that carbon emissions are changing seawater chemistry. The intricate reproductive cycle of kelp is an example of a delicate system that can experience big effects from seemingly small changes in ocean chemistry.