The Hot Zone

The table is set

Posted by Alison Hawkes on July 22, 2010
Category : Climate Science and Scientists, The Oceans

Biologists have it relatively easy studying animal behavior. Sometimes they need the help of binoculars or underwater scopes and they often have to sit in uncomfortable thickets.

Studying microorganisms can be a whole lot harder. They certainly say less. But microorganisms are vitally important to the Earth’s processes, both biological and chemical. The atmosphere is the result of their behavior, and in that respect so is the climate.

MIT scientists are studying how marine microorganisms feed on a smelly chemical produced by algae. How fast they consume dimethylsulfoniopropionate (DMSP) is important to the formation of clouds, which in turn affects the heat balance of the atmosphere.

The study published in the latest journal Science is the first to visually record microbial behavior in the presence of DMSP. In a lab, they simulated an ocean environment for these tiny critters and watched them gravitate towards the DMSP patches.

The scientists call the behavior “chemoattraction.” Just think of why cooking stores pump brownie smell into the air. Similarly, the DMSP provides “foraging cues” for a lot of marine life, including fish, birds,  mammals, and, as we see now from the research, microorganisms.

DSMP signals the presence of phytoplankton, a primary producer in the ocean food chain. If you smell that stuff, predator and prey know there’s a feast.

This phytoplankton provides nutrients to marine life. Photo: Abby Heithoff, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

For the microorganisms, DMSP provides a significant portion of their carbon and sulfur needs, and up to 90 percent of the chemical in the ocean is metabolized by bacteria.

“…a potentially large and direct influence of the marine biosphere on climate is ultimately mediated by microbial interactions at the microscale,” the researchers write.

The table is set.

-Alison Hawkes

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