Rutgers-led researchers discover new photosynthetic bacteria that appear to be significant component of ocean's carbon cycle

NEW BRUNSWICK/PISCATAWAY In a discovery that adds a new component to the ocean's carbon cycle -- a major contributor to the earth's carbon cycle on which all life depends -- a team of scientists led by Rutgers Professor Zbigniew S. Kolber has discovered that strange, plant-like bacteria capable of a certain type of photosynthesis are far more numerous in the ocean than previously thought.

Kolber is a researcher at the university's Institute of Marine and Coastal Sciences (IMCS) at the Cook College campus in New Brunswick In a study published in this week's Science magazine, Kolber and his colleagues from Rutgers and five other universities found that so-called aerobic photoheterotrophic bacteria, or bacteria that sometimes act like plants and use photosynthesis to satisfy their metabolic energy needs, may constitute 11 percent or more of all microbes near the surface. Science magazine is published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington, D.C.

Previously, it was generally believed that the ocean's carbon cycle was founded almost exclusively on phytoplankton, the tiny plants that serve as the basic food or oceanic "prairie grass" on which ocean life relies.

Kolber said that the bacteria, which unlike phytoplankton use a photosynthetic process that doesn't produce oxygen, appeared in virtually every sample of ocean water taken by the researchers during their three-week scientific expedition off the coasts of Oregon and Washington last July.

"These bacteria appear to be a significant component and have to be considered when scientists look at what's happening with the carbon cycle and how much is fixed' or combined with other elements in organic matter and how much is respired' or returned to the environment by organisms in the open ocean," says Kolber.

The Rutgers researcher cauti

Contact: Kevin P. Hyland
Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey

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