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'Black box' plankton found to have huge role in ocean carbon fixation
Date:4/15/2010

Carbon fixation by phytoplankton in the open ocean plays a key role in the global carbon cycle but is not fully understood. Until now researchers believed that cyanobacteria overwhelmingly accounted for phytoplankton's role in carbon fixation in the open ocean. But now scientists at the University of Warwick and the National Oceanography Centre in Southampton have opened 'the black box' of eukaryotic phytoplankton and discovered that they actually account for almost half the ocean's carbon fixation by phytoplankton.

Blue-green algae, or cyanobacteria, grow in vast numbers in the sunlit surface waters of the oceans, the photic zone. They use sunlight to 'fix' carbon by converting carbon dioxide into sugars and other organic compounds through photosynthesis.

Cyanobacteria belong to the 'picophytoplankton', the tiniest phytoplankton. Until now they have been thought to dominate carbon fixation in the open ocean, with species belonging to the genera Prochlorococcus and Synechococcus being particularly abundant.

Like all bacteria, cyanobacteria are prokaryotes, distinguished from eukaryotes by the absence of a cell nucleus. However, although much less abundant than cyanobacteria, the photic zone also has a high biomass of small eukaryotic phytoplankton capable of carbon fixation.

"The eukaryotic phytoplankton community has long been a 'black box' in terms of its composition as well as contribution to carbon fixation," says Professor Dave Scanlan of the University of Warwick; "Determining how much carbon different groups fix into biomass is required for a full understanding of the Earth's carbon cycle," adds Professor Mikhail Zubkov of the National Oceanography Centre.

In research, published today 15th April 2010 in the Journal of the International Society for Microbial Ecology, the scientists report how they measured carbon fixation by dominant phytoplankton groups in the subtropical and tropica
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Contact: Dr. Rory Howlett
r.howlett@noc.soton.ac.uk
44-238-059-8490
National Oceanography Centre, Southampton (UK)
Source:Eurekalert

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