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Growth in the sea comes down to a struggle for iron

William Cochlan at San Francisco State University, along with their graduate students. Several members of the Japanese research team were onboard the American vessel. The Americans' interest stems in part from the first SEEDS experiment in 2001. Japanese scientists had recorded the largest phytoplankton bloom of any of the iron fertilization tests conducted to that date. The question that remains unanswered is why the diatoms showed signs of nutrient stress before the iron and other nutrients were used up.

Wells and his colleagues think they may know. For clues, they have looked to a discipline that is far removed from the sea. Soil contains lots of iron, but most of it stays locked up in minerals, as accessible to microorganisms as the gold in Fort Knox. Bacteria and fungi have learned to scavenge some of this iron by building a trap. They create molecules called siderophores that are able to lock up iron. And in many cases, only the organism that built the molecule in the first place has the key to unlock it, says Wells.

"It's basically chemical warfare by the bacteria in soils, trying to get the iron. They specifically target iron with these molecules. Siderophores don't complex other metals very well. The idea is that it (the molecule) is like a magic bullet. They release it, it binds iron, and then only they have the key to unlock it and get the iron out of it. "Now in reality it's warfare. In some cases other bacteria have figured out ways to get the iron from molecules that they didn't produce. So, they can pirate that iron. It's beginning to look like the same thing may be happening in the ocean," Wells explains. In July, by the time Wells and his colleagues arrived at their appointed location in the northwestern Pacific, the Japanese team had already injected iron into the water and were monitoring the growing phytoplankton patch, roughly six by eight kilometers in size.

"The patch changed quickly and constantly, breaking into two p
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Source:University of Maine


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