From Kelp Babies to Kelp Forests

In my first month of graduate school, I sat in Casey’s office trying to think of a possible thesis project. I knew that I wanted to look at genetic variation, and how such variation could facilitate persistence in a changing climate, but did not know what system I wanted to use to ask this question. Casey asked, “what about Macrocystis pyrifera?”

I’m from the East Coast, and my undergraduate research was on deep-sea corals (which, for obvious reasons, do not have photosynthetic algae living inside of them like tropical corals do). Needless to say, I was not familiar with the scientific name of the smelly, fly-covered, kelp that I had seen while walking on the Southern California beaches. Over the next few weeks, I read a lot of papers and went free diving to get more familiar with giant kelp… the species that would soon fill my thoughts, cause a lot of stress, and little did I know, lead to a successful thesis.

Our initial project idea was to culture Macrocystis in the lab, and transplant juveniles into the field. This was quickly diluted to only look at zoospore settlement and gametogenesis. I shied away from raising kelp in the lab because I was told by multiple people how difficult it is, and I figured there was no way I could figure it out before graduating. Yet somehow, mostly by accident, I now have a mini-kelp forest growing on a microscope slide.

I started collecting kelp in September 2016, and collected from Los Angeles, Santa Barbara, and Monterey. I’ll spare you the details, but I induced zoospore release from the blades, and let those spores settle on microscope slides at different temperatures. I also let the settled spores mature for one month under white light in enriched seawater. I imaged my slides every week and what I referred to as “my kelp babies” were maturing into gametophytes, some of which were fertilized and growing into microscopic plants (embryonic sporophytes).

Embryonic sporophyte

Mature gametophytes










They grow up so fast, don’t they?

Macroscopic juvenile sporophytes

After my experiment was over, I decided to keep some of my best cultures in the off chance that some of them could grow into juveniles. You could say I neglected the kids…I didn’t check on them for about a month. To my surprise, there were juvenile plants growing on some of my slides! I moved these slides into a larger tank, and they are currently thriving in their new home.

I guess I got lucky, because despite many people advising me not to work with kelp, I successfully raised Macrocystis from spores to macroscopic juvenile blades. Times like these remind me why I love research so much.


Moral of the story: Don’t let others discourage you from trying something new.

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