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Ocean Bacteria Communication

November 2, 2011

Changes in chemical signaling among ocean bacteria may be impacting the global climate.



Bacteria and climate.  I’m Bob Hirshon and this is Science Update.

When ocean bacteria talk, the climate may listen.  This according to oceanographer Benjamin Van Mooy of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.  He explains that bacteria digest dead plankton as it sinks to the ocean floor.  That releases carbon dioxide, a major greenhouse gas.  Van Mooy’s team found that a signaling compound from these bacteria speeds up that digestive process, which means more carbon gets released near the surface.

BENJAMIN VAN MOOY (Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution):

And if it’s released at shallower depths, then the probability of that carbon dioxide returning back to the atmosphere is much higher.


It’s not clear how much this contributes to the global carbon cycle. But Van Mooy notes that rising atmospheric CO2 has made the oceans more acidic, which in turn makes these signaling molecules more stable.  So increased bacterial chatter could be both a result and a cause of more greenhouse gas emissions.  I’m Bob Hirshon for AAAS, the Science Society.