Scientists have long known that the world’s oceans play a crucial role in the global recycling of carbon between Earth’s ecosystems and atmosphere, now researchers at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography have identified a single bacterium behind it.

An atomic force microscope image of the bacterium Alteromonas. Image courtesy Scripps Institution of Oceanography

In a study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Scripps scientists have pinpointed a bacterium that appears to play a dominant role in carbon consumption.

Scripps’s Byron Pedler, Lihini Aluwihare, and Farooq Azam found that a single bacterium called Alteromonas could consume as much dissolved organic carbon as a diverse community of organisms.

“This was a surprising result,” said Pedler. “Because this pool of carbon is comprised of an extremely diverse set of molecules, we believed that many different microbes with complementary abilities would be required to break down this material, but it appears that individual species may be pulling more weight than others when it comes to carbon cycling.”

Pedler, a marine biology graduate student at Scripps, spent several years working with Scripps marine microbiologist Azam and chemical oceanographer Aluwihare in designing a system that would precisely measure carbon consumption by individual bacterial species.

The study advances  understanding the function microbes play in larger questions of climate warming and increased acidity in the ocean. The work was supported by the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation Marine Microbiology Initiative.

— From a press release by the Scripps Institution of Oceanography

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Chris Jennewein

Chris Jennewein is Editor & Publisher of Times of San Diego.