Ocean Bacteria Be Stinkin’…. But That’s Not All Bad

SciShort_5_19_16Plankton are often thought of as useless, lazy water detritus that is of no use to anyone but larger, even lazier water creatures. I mean, not by me, but by some other more ignorant and hate-filled ocean lovers. But now OSU researchers are unlocking some interesting new secrets about these abundant sea creatures and their potential role in climate change, and the secrets lie in their stink.

SAR11, a type of plankton, the enormous organism group that includes tiny animals, bacteria, protozoa, algae, and other lifeforms, is apparently pumping out sulfur gases non-stop and at a furious pace. SAR11 also just happens to be the most common and abundant plankton on Earth.

“Everyone knows these gases by their smells,” said Steve Giovannoni in a press release. He’s a distinguished professor of microbiology at OSU, and one author of the study.

“One of these compounds—dimethylsulfide, or DMS—we recognize as the smell of the sea. The other gas—methanethiol—makes us think of leaking gas lines. In the atmosphere, dimethylsulfide oxidizes to sulfuric acid, which some scientists think can seed cloud formation and alter heating of the Earth,” he added.

Interestingly, the plankton don’t “activate” the genes that produce the gas as many would expect. The ability is always on, ready for deployment if the surrounding algae happen to create the compound SAR11 eats, known as DMSP. Once the SAR11 plankton get a whiff of that DMSP they start pumping out the sulfur gases like they’re interviewing for a job as Satan’s executive assistant.

Though they haven’t nailed down the implications to our climate and its change, this is no doubt important new research that will have ramifications for a long time to come.

By Sidney Reilly