An all-pairs method is used to analyze phytoplankton fluorescence excitation spectra. An initial set of nine phytoplankton species is analyzed in pairwise fashion to select two optical filter sets, and then the two filter sets are used to explore variations among a total of 31 species in a single-cell fluorescence imaging photometer. Results are presented in terms of pair analyses; we report that 411 of the 465 possible pairings of the larger group of 31 species can be distinguished using the initial nine-species-based selection of optical filters. A bootstrap analysis based on the larger data set shows that the distribution of possible pair separation results based on a randomly selected nine-species initial calibration set is strongly peaked in the 410–415 pair separation range, consistent with our experimental result. Further, the result for filter selection using all 31 species is also 411 pair separations; The set of phytoplankton fluorescence excitation spectra is intuitively high in rank due to the number and variety of pigments that contribute to the spectrum. However, the results in this report are consistent with an effective rank as determined by a variety of heuristic and statistical methods in the range of 2–3. These results are reviewed in consideration of how consistent the filter selections are from model to model for the data presented here. We discuss the common observation that rank is generally found to be relatively low even in many seemingly complex circumstances, so that it may be productive to assume a low rank from the beginning. If a low-rank hypothesis is valid, then relatively few samples are needed to explore an experimental space. Under very restricted circumstances for uniformly distributed samples, the minimum number for an initial analysis might be as low as 8–11 random samples for 1–3 factors.
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