Ocean algae found to play big role in cooling the earth

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A new study has revealed that a common type of ocean algae plays a significant role in cooling the Earth’s climate.

Researchers from the University of East Anglia (UEA) and Ocean University of China (OUC) discovered that these tiny marine organisms produce a compound that helps cool the planet.

The findings, published in Nature Microbiology, could change our understanding of how these algae impact our climate.

The team identified the bloom-forming Pelagophyceae algae as major producers of a compound called dimethylsulfoniopropionate (DMSP).

Professor Jonathan Todd from UEA’s School of Biological Sciences said, “Pelagophyceae are among the most abundant algae on Earth, but we didn’t know they were important producers of DMSP.

This is exciting because DMSP is a crucial compound that helps microorganisms survive and also produces climate-cooling gases.”

Dr. Jinyan Wang, a Ph.D. student from OUC and UEA and the first author of the study, explained, “Understanding the role of Pelagophyceae in DMSP production means we need to rethink how much of this compound is being produced and how it affects our climate.”

Marine microorganisms produce billions of tons of DMSP in the Earth’s oceans each year. This compound helps them survive by protecting against various stresses like changes in salinity, cold, high pressure, and oxidative stress.

Importantly, DMSP is the main source of a climate-active gas called dimethylsulfide (DMS), which is known as the smell of the seaside.

The study suggests that the production of DMSP, and consequently the release of DMS, is likely higher than previously thought. This highlights the crucial role of microbes in regulating global climate. DMS also acts as a signaling molecule, guiding marine organisms to their food and deterring predators.

When DMS is released into the atmosphere, it forms oxidation products that help create clouds. These clouds reflect sunlight away from the Earth, cooling the planet.

This natural process is essential for regulating the Earth’s climate and is a key part of the global sulfur cycle, which returns sulfur from the oceans to the land.

The Sino-UK Joint Research Centre, established by UEA and OUC, promotes research and teaching in marine and ocean science.

Dr. Andrew Curson from UEA was part of the team that identified the enzymes responsible for DMSP production in various marine organisms. He said, “Identifying these enzymes allowed us to recognize Pelagophyceae as important DMSP producers.”

Professor Xiao-Hua Zhang from OUC added, “By identifying the enzymes involved in DMSP production, we can better understand and predict the behavior of these algae and their impact on global climate change. This study also raises questions about other unknown enzymes or pathways that make DMSP.”

The researchers emphasize the need for further study of Pelagophyceae algae in their natural environment and more detailed studies on other marine organisms.

Better measurements of environmental DMSP levels, production and breakdown rates, and the abundance of enzymes involved in making DMSP are also critical for advancing this field.

This research was a collaboration between UEA and OUC, with contributions from Qingdao Agricultural University, the University of Porto, Shandong University, and the Laoshan Laboratory in Qingdao, China.