CM – Microbiology researchers understand the role of the ocean in the carbon cycle


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October 7, 2021

by Steve Lundeberg, Oregon State University

Oregon State University microbiology researchers have shed new light on the mechanisms underlying the ocean’s carbon cycle by using a novel approach to tracking which microbes consume different types of organic carbon produced by common phytoplankton species .

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The research is an important step in predicting how much carbon will leave the ocean as a greenhouse gas carbon dioxide and how much will remain in marine sediments, said Ryan Mueller, associate professor in the Department of Microbiology at OSU and head of learning / p> « Our research shows that different types of microbes in the ocean are very specific, yet predictable, about the food sources they prefer, » said first author Brandon Kieft, a recent Oregon State Ph.D. Graduate who is now a postdoctoral fellow at the University of British Columbia. « As global climate change continues to change the oceanic environment at a rapid pace, the availability of food sources for microbes will also change and ultimately favor certain species over others. »

Phytoplankton are microscopic organisms at the base of the ocean’s food chain a key component of a critical biological carbon pump. Most swim in the upper part of the ocean where sunlight can easily reach them.

The tiny autotrophic plants – they make their own food – have a huge impact on the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere by removing it during photosynthesis soak up. It is a natural sink and one of the most important ways to remove CO2, the most common greenhouse gas, from the atmosphere; The atmospheric carbon dioxide has risen by 40% since the beginning of the industrial age and thus contributes significantly to the warming of the planet.

« We are investigating the consumers – the heterotrophic microbes – of the organic material produced by the primary producers, the microbial phytoplankton », said Mueller. “Both groups are microbes, the former consuming mostly organic carbon as a food source, while the latter ‘fix’ their own organic carbon. Microbes form the basis of the food web and the biological carbon pump, and our work is mainly focused on exploring what consumers are doing in this system. « 

The surface ocean stores almost as much carbon as there is in the atmosphere. While the ocean attracts atmospheric carbon dioxide, phytoplankton uses CO2 and sunlight for photosynthesis: they convert them into sugar and other compounds that the cells can use for energy, and in the process produces oxygen.

This so-called fixed carbon forms the food of heterotrophic microbes and higher organisms of the marine food web such as fish and mammals, which eventually convert the carbon back into atmospheric CO2 through respiration or contribute to the carbon supply on the sea floor when they die and sink.

The collective respiratory activity of the heterotrophic microbial consumers is that Main way for that Fixed dissolved organic carbon from phytoplankton is returned to the atmosphere as CO2.

Mueller, Kieft, and coworkers of the National Laboratories of Oak Ridge and Lawrence Livermore and the Universities of Tennessee, Washington and Oklahoma used stable isotope labeling to identify carbon on its To track down the organic matter produced by the phytoplankton and ultimately the heterotrophic microbes that consume it.

The scientists used these isotopes to determine which organisms ate diatoms and which cyanobacteria ate, two types of phytoplankton that together make up a large part of the ocean’s solid carbon. The researchers were also able to determine when the consumption took place – for example, the phytoplankton cells intermittently produced substances that were called lysates during their death phase or exudates during their growth phase.

“Our results have important implications for understanding how marine microbes are and photosynthetic algae work together to affect the global carbon cycle and how this oceanic food web might respond to ongoing environmental changes, ”said Kieft. « This will help us predict how much carbon will return to the atmosphere and how much will be buried in marine sediments over centuries. »

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