HAVE you ever wondered what our planet would be like if John Wyndham's triffids became reality? It may be hard to believe but our planet is already home to countless millions of triffids. Fortunately, these are not 10 feet tall like those in the novel, but are microscopic organisms living in the oceans, lakes and even ponds.
In spite of their size (rather lack of), they can be useful and yet also just as life-threatening to humans as those in the book. Scientifically both the triffids and their microscopic counterparts are "mixotrophs" - organisms which can make food from sunlight (like plants) and feed (like animals).
The predatory nature of the real, microscopic, mixotrophs was one of the reasons which drew my attention to these fascinating organisms.
I am a biologist who designs mathematical models of ecology on computers.
Such models enable us to create a replica of the real organism and provide opportunities to study the in-depth mechanisms of how these organisms function especially in a changing world. I develop and deploy models to look at how energy is transferred from the marine food producers (microscopic plant-like algae, the phytoplankton) to the fish communities via the zooplankton (e.g., copepods, krills, fish larvae). Just like humans, zooplankton have different food preferences and depending on what and how much they eat, they are either fat (and survive) or are skinny (and die).
While investigating how the changes in the quality and quantity of the algae affect the zooplanktonic consumers, I found that some of the microscopic zooplankton were not digesting all their food. Instead they were retaining parts of the algae which then enabled these hunters to photosynthesize like a plant. …