Researchers have found how a hugely abundant bacteria called Pelagibacterales helps keep the atmosphere stable by producing an environmentally important gas.
Where many forces are having adverse effects on climate, there are few that work the other way around and help stabilize Earth’s atmosphere. One of them is a tiny bacterium Pelagibacterales that is found in abundance in oceans, roughly making up one in three cells in the ocean surface.
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Researchers have recently figured out how this tiny organism plays an important role in balancing Earth’s climate. The bacteria produces dimethyl sulfide – an environmentally important gas that creates more clouds as the climate warms and serves as a protective shield against Sunlight. Researchers have also identified the gene responsible for creating the gas.
“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,” said Dr. Jonathan Todd from University of East Anglia.
“We studied it at a molecular genetic level to discover exactly how it generate a gas called dimethyl sulfide (DMS), which is known for stimulating cloud formation. Our research shows how a compound called dimethylsulfoniopropionate that is made in large amounts by marine plankton is then broken down into DMS by these tiny ocean organisms called Pelagibacterales. The resultant DMS gas may then have a role in regulating the climate by increasing cloud droplets that in turn reduce the amount of sunlight hitting the ocean’s surface.”
Dimethyl sulfide is formed in large amounts by living systems such as algae, bacteria and plants in marine environment and the most remarkable thing about DMS is the release and impact of gas from oceans’ surface to the atmosphere.
“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. This likely means we have been vastly underestimating the microbial contribution to the production of this important gas.” Co researcher Dr. Emily Fowler said.
What makes the finding even more interesting is the simple mechanism involved in the production of DMS. “These organisms don’t have the genetic regulatory mechanisms found in most bacteria,” said Dr. Temperton from Exeter University. “Having involved in nutrient-limited oceans, they have some of the smallest genomes of all free-living organisms; because small genomes take fewer resources to replicate.”
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"The production of DMS in Pelagibacterales is like a pressure release valve. When there is too much DMSP for Pelagibacterales to handle, it flows down a metabolic pathway that generates DMS as a waste product. This valve is always on but only comes into play when DMSP concentrations exceed a threshold . Kinetic regulation like this is not uncommon in bacteria but this is the first time we've seen it in play for such an important biogepchemical process."