Algal cell biology

The seas are teeming with a huge diversity of life from the simplest single-celled organisms to complex animals.  The many different life forms that we find on the planet had their evolutionary roots in the oceans.  Life in the oceans also plays critical roles in the Earth's carbon and nutrient cycles and the regulation of climate.  The marine biota also provide a rich resource of models for the study of the evolution of fundamental life processes such as development and physiology as well as responses and adaptation to changes in their external environment.   Marine organisms also present a vast untapped resource for biotechnological advances.

Our research addresses mechanisms that underlie fundamental processes in algae, with particular focus on the marine phytoplankton, ranging from elucidating molecular mechanisms operating in single cells to the factors that regulate the dynamics of populations.  We work with population biologists and ecosystem modellers to better understanding how the phytoplankton drive ocean processes and respond and adapt to the changes in ocean chemistry that are occurring as a result of human activities on a global scale.


My research is currently funded by a European Research Council Advanced grant, the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), EU Horizon 2020 and the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation.


I study algal cells in order to understand fundamental aspects of cell biology, including cellular transport, homeostasis and signalling. This research is providing unexpected insights into the evolution of membrane transport and signalling mechanisms in eukaryote organisms.  My research also addresses the cell biology of key marine organisms,  such as the calcifying coccolithophores and silicifying diatoms, that are of critical importance in global carbon and nutrient cycling. We adopt a multidisciplinary approach combining comparative physiology, molecular biology and genomic studies to better understand how phytoplankton populations may respond or adapt to changing conditions in the oceans.


The SeaCells Project

SeaCells addresses fundamental questions in phytoplankton biology from cellular to population scales.  This research is beginning to provide exciting new information on the mechanisms and evolution of membrane transport, cell signalling and metabolic regulation in phytoplankton species, such as diatoms and coccolithophores, that play important roles in driving biogeochemical cycles. The research builds on a number of recent findings, including the discovery of cell membrane properties that were thought to be typical of animal cells but now must be considered to be of much more ancient origin.   The 5-year SeaCells programme, funded by a European Research Council (ERC) Advanced Grant, brings together single cell biophysics, imaging and state of the art molecular biology with in situ studies of natural oceanic phytoplankton populations.  A major aim is to gain critical mechanistic understanding at the molecular and single cell level along with information on the microenvironment that surrounds cells.  In order to understand how the physiological properties of single cells in the laboratory translate to behaviour of natural populations we will transfer single cell technologies developed in the laboratory to ship-board platforms.  Knowledge of cell- to-cell variability will provide insights into the plasticity of populations and their responses to changing ocean conditions.  


How and why do coccolithophores calcify?

Coccolithophores are well known for their ability to produce intricate protective scales composed of crystalline calcium carbonate (calcite). Coccoliths are produced inside the cells and are secreted to the cell surface. We are interested in the mechanisms that underlie this incredible biological process, particularly the transport and regulatory mechanisms that bring about coccolith formation.  This knowledge is used to develop models of the costs and benefits of calcification that can be scaled from single cells to populations.

A collaborative project led by Dr. Glen Wheeler (MBA) is studying the unexpected finding that certain species of coccolithophores require silicon in order to correctly form their calcite scales.   Significantly, those species that do require silicon also possess diatom-like silicon transport genes that are associated with the process of silicification.  We wish to understand the evolutionary and ecological implications of this finding. This work has recently been funded by a joint NERC/NSF grant and will involve collaboration with Dr. Alison Taylor (University of North Carolina, Wilmington).


EMBRIC: The European Marine Biological Resource Centre Infrastructure Consortium 

EMBRIC is a Horizon 2020 Blue Growth project that brings together European research infrastructures and industry with the objectives of developing chains of services and pipelines for access to biological, analytical and data resources.  Our role is to work with European partners to develop protocols and pipelines for biotechnological applications with microalgae.




The SEACELLS project was funding from October 2015 to October 2020 by a €2.7m European Research Council (ERC) Advanced Grant.  SEACELLS addressed fundamental questions in phytoplankton biology from cellular to population scales. A particular focus was to better understand mechanisms that...

European Marine Biological Research Infrastructure Cluster to promote the Blue Bioeconomy (EMBRIC)

The Horizon 2020 NFRADEV-4-2014-2015 EMBRIC project is designed to accelerate the pace of scientific discovery and innovation from marine Bio-Resources. EMBRIC aims to promote new applications derived from marine organisms in fields such as drug discovery, novel foods and food...

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Abdul Chrachri is a postdoctoral cell physiologist.  Abdul works across several projects and provides electrophysiological and microscopical skills.  He records the electrical activity of phytoplankton cells using intracellular electrodes and patch clamp approaches. He also uses patch clamp electrophysiology to monitor the acitivity of specific ion channels from coccolithophores and diatoms that have been expressed in mammalian cell lines.

Thumbnail image of a Lens result

Deirdre McLachalan is a postdoctoral researcher, funded by the Leverhulme Trust with Professor Alistair Hetherington (University of Bristol).  Deirdre  works on the application of novel imaging approaches to study calcium signalling in diatoms and vascular plants.  She uses wide-field, high resolution Mesolens imaging for simultaneous monitoring of  the activities of many hundreds of cells to better understand how cells communicate in diatom populations and in multicelular plant tissues.  

Staff List

Deirdre McLachlan

Email: Telephone Number:
+44 (0)1752 968638
Abdesslam Chrachri
Postdoctoral Research Fellow

Abdul re-joined the MBA in 2007 and is working in various projects focusing on the cell biology of diatoms and coccolithophores, two of the most significant groups of phytoplankton with respect to ocean primary productivity

Email: Telephone Number:
+44(0)1752 426541
Susan Wharam
Research Assistant

Susie Wharam is a Molecular Biology Technician, within the Cellular and Molecular group.

Email: Telephone Number:
+44(0)1752 426541
Friedrich Kleiner
PhD Student

Friedrich studied Biology at the Martin-Luther University of Halle-Wittenberg with the focus on insect and plant physiology.

Email: Telephone Number:
+44(0)1752 426240

Brownlee selected  publications

Professor Colin Brownlee

Senior Research Fellow, Marine Biological Association

Chair of Marine Biosciences, School of Ocean and Earth Sciences, University of Southampton.



The Laboratory, Citadel Hill

Plymouth PL1 2PB

M: +44 7917 845471

T: +44 1752 426585 or 426274