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Ocean microbe communities changing, but long-term environmental impact is unclear
Date:2/14/2012

CORVALLIS, Ore. As oceans warm due to climate change, water layers will mix less and affect the microbes and plankton that pump carbon out of the atmosphere but researchers say it's still unclear whether these processes will further increase global warming or decrease it.

The forces at work are enormous and the stakes huge, said Oregon State University scientists in an article to be published Friday in the journal Science.

But inadequate ocean monitoring and lack of agreement on how to assess microbial diversity has made it difficult to reach a consensus on what the future may hold, they said.

"We're just beginning to understand microbial diversity in the oceans and what that may mean to the environment," said Stephen Giovannoni, an OSU professor of microbiology. "However, a large portion of the carbon emitted from human activities ends up in the oceans, which with both their mass of water and biological processes act as a huge buffer against climate change. These are extremely important issues."

The interest is growing, scientists say, because nearly half of the world's photosynthesis is contributed by microbial plankton, and the process of marine carbon production and consumption is much faster than on land. A turnover of terrestrial plant biomass takes 15 years, they say, while marine turnover takes just six days.

As the ocean surface warms, evidence shows that it will become more "stratified," or confined to layers that mix less than they did in the past. This should reduce overall ocean productivity, Giovannoni said, but so little is known about the effect on ocean microbes that the implication for carbon sequestration and global warming is less clear.

Some OSU research on routine seasonal changes of microbes in the Sargasso Sea of the Atlantic Ocean suggests that different and specialized microbial communities can become more dominant when water warms.

As warmer oceans become a more l
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Contact: Stephen Giovannoni
steve.giovannoni@oregonstate.edu
541-737-1835
Oregon State University
Source:Eurekalert

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