About Imaging FlowCytobot

Heidi Sosik, Robert Olson, Joe Futrelle @ Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution
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A drop of seawater contains hundreds, even thousands of tiny phytoplankton, organisms so small they can only be seen with a microscope. Despite being so tiny they are incredibly interesting and beautifully diverse. According to the scientists studying them at WHOI, that diversity is so beautiful that everyone should be able to peek into the invisible world of plankton. And that is being made possible by a new invention called Imaging FlowCytobot.
Modified from Chisholm 2000
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Like land plants, phytoplankton use energy from the sun to photosynthesize and make new organic matter. And they use up carbon dioxide and produce oxygen along the way. In fact, these single-celled microbes produce half the oxygen we breathe every day. Phytoplankton thrive under all kinds of conditions everywhere in the ocean where even the tiniest amount of sunlight penetrates – from icy waters of the Arctic to balmy tropical reefs. They manage this by being extremely diverse—they come in a huge range of shapes and sizes and have evolved many intricate patterns of life.
Photo credit: T. Kleindinst
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WHOI scientists are working to show off that diversity by opening access to images being produced by Imaging FlowCytobot, or IFCB for short. IFCB is an automated underwater microscope designed by Rob Olson and Heidi Sosik. They build IFCBs from lasers, video cameras, microscope parts, and small computers. IFCB can take more than 10 pictures per second as phytoplankton and other small particles are speeding by the video camera in a thin stream of seawater.
Photo credit: T. Crockford
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At the Martha's Vineyard Coastal Observatory, IFCBs are working around the clock in the ocean to capture high resolution images of plankton and relay them to shore. At the IFCB data dashboard web site, anyone can access those images within minutes of collection. Plus browse hundreds of millions of images taken over the last 6 years.
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This video shows images captured by IFCB from about a ¼ teaspoon of ocean water. IFCB takes a picture whenever it detects chlorophyll in the stream of water flowing past its camera. The video shows where IFCB found plankton and other objects in each picture it took. A system of pumps, filters, and small tubes ensures that only a few objects flow past the camera at a time.
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For scientists, this series of images provides a new way to view the natural ebb and flow of phytoplankton communities as the seasons change and years go by. Long time series like these show us how the invisible world of plankton adjusts to environmental changes. Ultimately this knowledge will help us understand the processes that produce the oxygen we breathe and support the ocean food webs that include fish, whales, and seabirds.