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Ocean Microorganisms May Help Regulate The Earth’s Climate

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A new study suggests that a group of microorganisms in the ocean might be the key to regulating the Earth’s climate and maintaining its stability.

Researchers at the University of East Anglia and Oregon State University have found that a certain type of bacteria named Pelagibacterales produce vast quantities of dimethyl sulfide, a gas that has positive effects on the environment. The study was led by Professor Steve Giovanonni at Dr. Jing Sun.

In a press release, Dr. Jonathan Todd, from the UEA’s School of Biological Sciences, said that, “These types of ocean bacteria are among the most abundant organisms on Earth – comprising up to half a million microbial cells found in every teaspoon of seawater.” He adds, “We studied it at a molecular genetic level to discover exactly how it generates a gas called dimethyl sulfide, which is known for stimulating cloud formation.”

Dimethylsulfoniopropionate, a metabolite produced by plankton, is apparently being broken down into dimethyl sulfide by the ocean bacteria. The resulting gas may then play a role in regulating climate by increasing cloud droplets that decrease the amount of sunlight that hits the ocean’s surface.

Emily Fowler, a UEA researcher, says that, “Excitingly, the way Pelagibacterales generates DMS is via a previously unknown enzyme, and we have found that the same enzyme is present in other hugely abundant marine bacterial species.” Fowler’s research in DMS-generating enzymes made her PhD possible. She says, “This likely means we have been vastly underestimating the microbial contribution to the production of this important gas.”

Dr. Temperton from Exeter University adds that the findings are significant.

This work shows that the Pelagibacterales are likely an important component in climate stability. If we are going to improve models of how DMS impacts climate, we need to consider this organism as a major contributor.

The research findings will be published in the journal Nature Microbiology, and is hoped that it will inspire climate scientists to include this bacteria in building their most recent climate models.



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