UGA scientists discover bacterial 'switch gene' that regulates oceans' sulfur emissions into the air

The number of plankton in the seas is almost beyond comprehension. A single teaspoonful of ocean water holds several million of these microscopic drifters, and in recent years, scientists have discovered plankton are involved with everything from the health of the water to global warming.

Now, a team of researchers, led by marine microbial ecologist Mary Ann Moran at the University of Georgia, has discovered a bacterial "switch gene" in two groups of plankton. This gene helps determine whether certain marine bacterioplankton convert a sulfur compound to one that rises into the atmosphere and affects the earth's temperature or remains climatically inactive in the seas.

"This new gene offers a powerful tool to study the question of how bacterioplankton are involved with ocean-atmosphere sulfur exchange," said Moran.

The study was published today in the journal Science. Other authors of the paper include: William B. Whitman, of the UGA department of microbiology; Erinn Howard, James Henriksen, Alison Buchan and Chris Reich, present or former doctoral students at UGA; current UGA postdoctoral associate Helmut Brgmann and former postdocs Kimberly Mace and Jose Gonzlez; former UGA undergraduate Rory Welsh; UGA lab coordinator Wenying Ye; Samantha Joye, biogeochemist in the department of marine sciences at UGA; and Ronald Kiene of the department of marine sciences at the University of South Alabama.

Much of the sulfur in the atmosphere comes from the surface of oceans and a compound called dimethlysulfide or DMS. Marine bacterioplankton control how much sulfur rises into the atmosphere by converting a compound called DMSP either to DMS or to sulfur compounds that are not climatically active.

Moran and her team discovered, in two groups of bacterioplankton, the gene that controls whether or not these sea drifters create DMS that rises into the air or another compound that doesn't. The implications are considerable, sinc

Contact: Phil Williams
University of Georgia

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