Rearing A Plankton Menagerie By Shawn Carlson

How to Rear a Plankton Menagerie

Shawn Carlson explains how to raise single-celled aquatic creatures-lots of them

The Monterey Bay Aquarium in California houses some of the finest marine exhibits in the world. So when the staff recently offered me a personal, behind-the-scenes tour, I couldn't refuse. Tim Cooke and Ed Seidel made the visit absolutely fascinating, and I am indebted to them for their hospitality. Tim, an aquarist extraordinaire, even let me in on a few secrets for raising plankton.

And he should know them: the Monterey Bay Aquarium grows a lot of plankton. Tim rears tons of the stuff each year to feed the thousands of voracious fish, crustaceans and jellies under its care. But these single-celled critters are not just fish food: they are quite intriguing in their own right and can provide amateur scientists with endless hours of delightful observation. When viewed under a microscope, the tiny phytoplankton (plants) and zooplankton (animals) are amazingly beautiful and complex.

These creatures can also be useful for many kinds of research. For example, phy-toplankton such as green algae are great for investigating the fundamental biochemistry of photosynthesis. And members of a zooplankton group called rotifers, which measure a mere 400 microns across, serve as the microscopic equivalent of a miner's canary, because they are sensitive to toxins and therefore may be used to monitor the health of estuaries and streams.

Amateurs can easily rear both marine and freshwater plankton for examination, for feeding larger aquatic animals or for use in more advanced research projects. Ocean enthusiasts should go to their local aquarium store and purchase a kit to make 50 gallons of seawater (for about $15) as well as a simple salinity tester. You'll need to order the plankton from Aquaculture Supply ( or call 352-567-0226). Make sure they also sell you a copy of Plankton Culture Manual, by Frank H. Hoff and Terry W. Snell (Florida Aqua Farms, 1999; $26.50)—the bible of plankton cultivation. I recently grew up a batch of Nannochloropsis (catalogue no. AA-NCP, $8.50) and Tetraselmis (AA-TET, $11), both green algae that can live in either freshwater or salt water. And I raised a little saltwater rotifer known as Brachionusplicatilis (AB-R1S, $10). You may also want to grow diatoms—a type of algae that strengthens its cell walls with fantastically beautiful silica structures. If so, a good choice might be Chaetoceros (AA-CHA, $11).

Clear plastic soda bottles in the two-liter size make ideal culture flasks. To prevent yours from being taken over by bacteria, you'll need to sterilize everything before you begin. So go to a store that sells pool supplies and purchase granular chlorine. Dissolve as much of the solid as possible into 30 milliliters (about an ounce) of warm water. Then prepare a 10-to-1 dilution by mixing five milliliters (one teaspoon) of the concentrated chlorine solution into 45 milliliters of distilled water. Be careful you don't transfer any undis-solved crystals into the sterilizing solution you are preparing.

Next, fill your two-liter containers nearly to the top with either distilled water or seawater and add five drops of the sterilizing solution to each. Wait two

CLEAR PLASTIC BOTTLES, large and small, serve as culture flasks for raising different kinds of plankton, such as green algae.

stiff jJL

plastic i tubing x

Fluorescent light

CLEAR PLASTIC BOTTLES, large and small, serve as culture flasks for raising different kinds of plankton, such as green algae.

stiff jJL

plastic i tubing x

Fluorescent light

Zooplankton Culture

hours for the chlorine to do its work. Chlorine evaporates quickly from solution, so you'll have to make up a fresh batch of sterilizing fluid every time you need some. In this sense, evaporation is a nuisance, but you can take advantage of it to remove the chlorine in the flasks by bubbling air through the water for about 24 hours. A few drops of bottled dechlori-

with gelatin. To remove the living cells, submerge the gel beneath a thin layer of your growing solution and allow it to soak for 12 hours. The microorganisms will then easily rub off the gel under the gentle pressure of a sterile cotton swab. Inoculate each flask with about 10 milliliters (two teaspoons) of the resulting solution. Make sure at every step that all

Drilled hole '

Loosely fitted cap

Soda bottle

LOOSELY FITTED CAP on the soda bottle (above) allows the escape of air injected through the central tube but does not let contaminants fall in. A rubber stopper with a bent tube set in one of its two holes (right) provides the same function on the watercooler jug.

nating agent from a tropical-fish store will do the job in seconds. Either way, don't introduce your plankton until you've verified, using a kit for testing home pools, that no chlorine is detectable.

A single pump for a 10-gallon aquarium can easily aerate 10 culture flasks. Use a multiport manifold (a common piece of aquarium plumbing with one input and many outputs) to distribute the air to the different cultures. Some stiff plastic tubing (also available at the aquarium store) will allow you to inject the air at the bottom of each flask. But you should pump it through a filter with 0.5-micron openings, such as SLFH05010 from Milli-pore ($79 for a 10-pack, www.millipore. com; 800-645-5476), to keep bacteria from invading your sterilized containers [see illustration on opposite page].

Now enrich each flask with the appropriate nutrients. Aquaculture Supply sells Micro Algae Grow (catalogue no. FA-MIS, $4.20) for cultivating most kinds of green algae and Liquid Silicate Solution (FA-SS6, $3.50) for culturing diatoms. Directions come with the packages.

The plankton samples arrive in the mail growing in small plastic dishes filled

Watercooler jug

Culture Your Own Live Phytoplankton

Watercooler jug your instruments are germ-free by carefully washing them with detergent and sterilizing solution and then rinsing them with distilled water.

Ideally, your culture should be incubated at 19 degrees Celsius (about 66 degrees Fahrenheit), but I had no problems just letting mine sit at room temperature. Avoid exposure to direct sunlight, because the sun's rays can quickly heat your flasks to lethal levels. Instead place the flasks in front of a bright fluorescent lamp for 18 hours a day. A standard bulb of at least 2,500 lumens works fine, but some aquar-ists recommend "grow-lights," which produce more of the energetic blue photons used in photosynthesis.

Once you start things going, you should keep aerating the water constantly. In about a week, your container should attain a deep green hue, which indicates that the culture is mature and ready to feed to other aquatic creatures. In as few as 10 days, the cellular population explosion can generate enough waste to poison itself, so don't wait too long. If you extract 10 milliliters of mature culture to start a new batch, you'll never need to purchase another starter gel.

The professionals grow larger quantities of algae in 20-liter (five-gallon) containers called carboys. Some scientific supply companies charge $100 for these transparent plastic bottles, but you could just as well use a discarded five-gallon jug from a watercooler. Aquarists usually install a special arrangement of tubing into their carboys to pass the air through without risking contamination. I used a hot-air gun to bend a stiff plastic aquarium tube and achieved the same result [see illustration at left].

Want to grow a lot of plankton? Fill an empty water jug with distilled water or salt water and add five milliliters of fresh sterilizing solution. As before, let things stand for two hours, then dechlorinate the water and test it. Add the necessary nutrients and inoculate the jug with the contents of one complete flask of mature culture. Connect the air pump and make sure the container gets plenty of fluorescent light.

You can track the rate of growth with a special dipstick sold by Aquaculture Supply (AC-DM9, $7.75). Just submerge the stick into the jug until the greenish water obscures the black ring on the bottom, then read the depth off the scale on the side. For each species, you can gauge the density of cells using a table supplied with the stick. After about a week, my water jug had more than 10 million cells living in each milliliter—some 200 billion cells in all.

With a stable supply of algae, even if it's only two liters' worth, you'll be able to raise rotifers. Although procedures for rearing these sophisticated aquatic predators are straightforward, they are more complex than the simple steps described here for raising their algal food. The interested amateur should consult Hoff and Snell's excellent book for pointers. And keep a lookout for future installments of this column describing amateur research projects that use plankton. E9

To get your feet wet, Aquaculture Supply sells three complete introductory algae-growing kits: the Maxi Culture Kit (GA-MACK, $77), the Mini Culture Kit (GA-MICK, $48) and the Algae Culture Kit (GA-ACK, $41). Each kit includes Hoff and Snell's manual. As a service, the Society for Amateur Scientists can provide an air filter and a carboy-size stopper for $20. For more information, consult the society's Web site,, and click on "Forum." You may write the society at 4735 Clairemont Square PMB 179, San Diego, CA 92117, or call 619-239-8807.

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  • alisha
    Where can I find scientific supply houses nannochloropsis in Ontario?
    8 years ago

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