He is studying the unexplored language of the sea
Phytoplankton are the Earth’s “second lung” and necessary for all life. But we still have much to learn about how they interact with their surroundings. Doctoral student Milad Pourdanandeh is studying the unexplored chemical language of the sea and hopes to be able to increase knowledge about toxic algal blooms.
The ocean is deep – and filled with mysteries. The organisms in the sea communicate and interact through chemical signals is well known by researchers. But less is known about how these interactions occur and what they can lead to.
Milad Pourdanandeh, doctoral student in the Department of Marine Sciences and the research group Signals in the Sea, spends his days digging deeper into the field of marine chemical ecology. His focus is on the interaction between phytoplankton and copepods – a type of zooplankton – and the defence mechanisms that the “scent” of copepods triggers in phytoplankton.
“Plankton spend their whole lives sensing chemical signals from their surroundings to find food, a partner, or to detect threats. The scent secreted by copepods leads to numerous defence mechanisms in a wide variety of phytoplankton, which would like to avoid being eaten by copepods. Some phytoplankton light up – the phenomenon known as bioluminescence. Others become toxic, and we’ve also seen how phytoplankton that occur in long chains break these up as a defence,” he says.
More knowledge of toxic algal bloom
Developing a better understanding of the sea and interactions between its organisms is important for several reasons. Milad points out that we know more about the surface of Mars than we do about the seafloor, and he thinks it is particularly important to learn more about the role of phytoplankton in the marine ecosystem.
“Phytoplankton are the foundation for all life and produce around half of all oxygen on Earth. If the rainforests are one of the Earth’s lungs, then phytoplankton are the other. That’s why we need to understand more about how they interact with their surroundings.”
Because one of the defence mechanisms of phytoplankton is producing toxin, learning more about that process is an important piece of the puzzle in our understanding of toxic algal bloom.
“Hopefully, we can contribute to better models to predict toxic algal bloom and see what factors cause them. What is the importance of the impact of copepods on phytoplankton in relation to overfertilization, for example?”
A fascination with the role of copepods
Only about ten researchers in the world study the chemical signals secreted by copepods. Milad stumbled upon the field following a lecture by senior lecturer Erik Selander, who discussed the important role of copepods in marine food chains.
“There are tonnes of them and they’re everywhere, in the oceans, lakes and all waterways. If you’ve ever had a gulp of seawater, then you’ve definitely swallowed copepods. I thought that was really cool.”
Thriving in the world of academia
For Milad, who is much younger than his siblings and grew up with a single mother who had moved from Iran to Sweden, school was a way to find an identity and improve his self-confidence. He thrives in the world of academia and believes the University of Gothenburg has a supportive and encouraging environment.
“The established researchers are very helpful and are happy to spotlight their doctoral students. But there’s still a danger of being highly performance oriented, which I am. You can always do more, read more, learn more. Eventually you have to make up your mind and let go.”
What is your goal for the future?
“I’m not quite sure, but I want to maintain some connection to the research community. It’s important and great fun to develop an understanding of the world we live in.”
Text: Ulrika Ernström
Is a: Doctoral student in marine chemical ecology in the Department of Marine Sciences and the research group Signals in the Sea, University of Gothenburg.
Grew up in: Örebro
Fun fact: Milad loves dogs and he and his partner had five foster dogs during the pandemic. He likes to cook, bake sourdough bread and play video games – and he loves Star Wars.