Athens, Ga. Scientists have known for two decades that sulfur compounds that are produced by bacterioplankton as they consume decaying algae in the ocean cycle through two paths. In one, a sulfur compound dimethylsulfide, or DMS, goes into the atmosphere, where it leads to water droplet formation the basis of clouds that cool the Earth. In the other, a sulfur compound goes into the ocean's food web, where it is eaten and returned to seawater.
What they haven't known is how sulfur is routed one way or the other or why.
They also have wondered what if in a time of growing concern about global warming it was possible to divert the sulfur compound that goes into the oceans into the atmosphere, helping to mitigate global warming?
A study by researchers at the University of Georgia just published in Nature brings the possibility of using the sulfur cycle to mitigate global warming closer with the identification of the steps in the biochemical pathway that controls how bacteria release the sulfur compound methanethiol, or MeSH, into the microbial food web in the oceans and the genes responsible for that process.
"With our increased understanding of the sulfur cycle in the ocean," said study co-author William (Barny) Whitman, "we are now better able to evaluate the impacts of climate change on the process and the potential for its manipulation, which has been proposed as a way to mitigate global warming.
"It's wonderful to have this much understanding of a major biogeochemical process," noted Whitman, distinguished research professor and head of the department of microbiology in the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences.
In addition to elucidating the steps in the pathway and identifying the responsible genes, the team of UGA microbiologists, marine scientists and chemists discovered that the pathway is found widely, not only among bacterioplankton in the ocean but also in non-marine environments
|Contact: Barny Whitman|
University of Georgia