Coccolithophores are marine haptophytes that derive their name from the calcium carbonate coccoliths that blanket the cell. They extend deep into the tree of life and represent the third most abundant group of phytoplankton in today’s oceans with some 300 different species. The morphological diversity of their coccoliths is preserved in a continuous and complete fossil record spanning the last 200 Myr, and represents an important tool for dating and correlating strata, reconstructing past climate and oceanic conditions, and dissecting patterns of macroevolution.
Emiliania huxleyi (E. huxleyi) is the most prominent coccolithophore and has attracted the attention of scientists from fields as diverse as geology, biogeography, paleoclimatology, ecophysiology, material science, and medicine. E. huxleyi is distributed throughout the world’s oceans and is linked to the chemical balance between the atmosphere, hydrosphere, and geosphere. Massive blooms of the algae can cover 100,000s of square kilometers and can be detected via satellite imagery due to the reflective properties of its coccoliths. Because of its ecological success and its ability to fix inorganic carbon into both photosynthetic and biomineralized product, E. huxleyi has significantly impacted the biogeochemistry of the earth directing carbonate chemistry in surface oceans and exporting large amounts of C to deep water sediments. In addition to playing an important role in global carbon cycling, E. huxleyi also contributes to global sulfur cycling. During grazing E. huxleyi produces the climatically active trace gas dimethyl sulfide; emissions of which may contribute to marine cloud formation and climate regulation.
E. huxleyi is also of interest to those in biotechnology. A group of secondary metabolites known as polyketides that E. huxleyi synthesizes possess a wealth of pharmacologically important activities, including antimicrobial, antifungal, antiparasitic, antitumor and agrochemical properties. The ultrastructure and optical features of the coccoliths, on the other hand, are being targeted for applications in nanotechnology relating to biomedical, telecommunications and optoelectronic devices and/or materials.