Emiliania huxleyi

Dip a bucket in the ocean almost anywhere in the world and you will recover a few hundred or maybe tens of thousands of cells of the coccolithophore Emiliania huxleyi

It is one of the most beautiful and widespread unicellular organisms, and in early summer it forms enormous blooms around the edges of the northwest european shelf.

Species detail

Emiliania huxleyi is one of the youngest species on Earth. It only appeared around 250,000 years ago, about the same time as Homo sapiens, and it is even more widely dispersed, occurring throughout the world’s oceans. 

This minute, single-celled planktonic alga basically floats around in the upper layers of the ocean dividing and photosynthesising. However, it has a few remarkable properties:

  • It produces beautiful intricate calcareous plates (coccoliths).
  • It can grow explosively to produce massive blooms of milky water detectable from space.
  • It has a Cheshire Cat-like ability to escape from trouble by changing form.
  • Emiliania huxleyi coccoliths
    Taxonomy

    Coccolithophore species are characterised by the calcareous coccoliths they form. Learn about the appearance and structure of Emiliania huxleyi, a remarkable example of bioengineering in miniature.

  • Emiliania huxleyi from the tropical Atlantic (left) and Antarctic (right) oceans
    Distribution

    Although Emiliania huxleyi only lives in the top part of the ocean where photosynthesis can take place, it can be found in almost every ocean around the world. Learn more about this coccolithophore's ability to thrive in a wide range of environments.

  • Diagram of an Emiliania huxleyi cell
    Biology

    Get information about the internal structure and biological processes of this abundant coccolithophore, including how its coccosphere is formed.

  • A satellite image of an algal bloom off the coast of Cornwall, Uk and Brittany, France
    Behaviour

    Emiliania huxleyi may be microscopically small, but its algal blooms can be seen from space. Find out more about what causes them and where they occur.

  • Scanning electron microscope image of a partially dissolved Emiliania huxleyi coccosphere
    Ocean acidification

    Learn about the threat ocean acidification poses to all marine organisms which produce calcareous skeletons and why Emiliania huxleyi should be less vulnerable than most.

  • Emiliania huxleyi coccospheres, artificually coloured to show the individual coccospheres
    References

    Get reference material for Emiliania huxleyi.

Images

Emiliania huxleyi coccospheres, artificially coloured to show the individual coccospheres

Scanning electron microscope images of Emiliania huxleyi coccospheres from a bloom in the South West Approaches, June 2004. They have been digitally coloured to show the individual coccospheres.

Emiliania huxleyi coccolith diagram and scanning electron microscope image

Diagram (left) and a scanning electron microscope image (right) of an Emiliania huxleyi coccolith.

Coccolithophore species in the Noelaerhabdaceae family

Coccolithophore species in the Noelaerhabdaceae family

Emiliania huxleyi coccospheres, as seen under a light microscope

Emiliania huxleyi coccospheres, as seen under a light microscope

Emiliania huxleyi from the tropical Atlantic (left) and Antartic (right) oceans

Emiliania huxleyi has an exceptionally wide distribution. These scanning electron microscope images show E. huxleyi from the tropical Atlantic (left) and Antarctic (right) oceans.

Scanning electron microscope images of Emiliania huxleyi coccospheres

Scanning electron microscope images of Emiliania huxleyi coccospheres, some multi-layered.

Diagram of an Emiliania huxleyi cell

Diagram of an Emiliania huxleyi cell (modified from Westbroek et al., 1993)

Diagram of the lifecycle of Emiliania huxleyi

Diagram of the lifecycle of Emiliania huxleyi

A satellite image of an algal bloom off the coast of Cornwall, UK and Brittany, France

A satellite image taken in June 2004 of an algal bloom off the coast of Cornwall, UK and Brittany, France.

The Alice in Wonderland book characters the Red Queen and the Cheshire Cat

Scientists have named alternative models for the relationship between Emiliania huxleyi and the viruses that infect it ‘Red Queen evolutionary dynamics’ and ‘Cheshire Cat dynamics’, inspired by the behaviour of the characters in the book Alice in Wonderland.

Scanning electron microscope image of a partially dissolved Emiliania huxleyi coccosphere

Scanning electron microscope image of a partially dissolved Emiliania huxleyi coccosphere