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Tiny creatures have massive effect on Earth's atmosphere

"These types of ocean bacteria are among the most abundant organisms on Earth," said researcher Jonathan Todd.

By Brooks Hays
New research suggests an abundant order of marine bacteria plays an important role in encouraging cloud formation and stabilizing Earth's atmosphere. Photo by UPI/Shutterstock/Willyam Bradberry
New research suggests an abundant order of marine bacteria plays an important role in encouraging cloud formation and stabilizing Earth's atmosphere. Photo by UPI/Shutterstock/Willyam Bradberry

NORWICH, England, May 16 (UPI) -- New research suggests an abundant group of tiny ocean organisms helps maintain Earth's atmospheric stability.

Scientists at the University of East Anglia and Oregon State University discovered that an order of bacteria called Pelagibacterales produce significant amounts of dimethyl sulfide, a gas with important environmental qualities.

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Researchers believe dimethyl sulfide molecules act as cloud condensation nuclei.

"These types of ocean bacteria are among the most abundant organisms on Earth -- comprising up to half a million microbial cells found in every teaspoon of seawater," Jonathan Todd, a biologist at UEA, said in a news release. "We studied it at a molecular genetic level to discover exactly how it generates a gas called dimethyl sulfide, which is known for stimulating cloud formation."

Researchers found that dimethylsulfoniopropionate, a metabolite produced by marine plankton, is broken down into dimethyl sulfide by the omnipresent bacteria.

"Excitingly, the way Pelagibacterales generates DMS is via a previously unknown enzyme, and we have found that the same enzyme is present in other hugely abundant marine bacterial species," explained Emily Fowler, a UEA researcher whose investigation into DMS-generating enzymes earned her a PhD.

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"This likely means we have been vastly underestimating the microbial contribution to the production of this important gas," Fowler said.

The findings -- published this week in the journal Nature Microbiology -- may encourage climate scientists to account for Pelagibacterales bacteria in the latest climate models.

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