Bacterial Ocean Life Stabilises Climate

Ocean LifeMicroscopic ocean life has a big role in climate regulation, according to research. This is a rosette going into the water in Bermuda to sample SAR11. Courtesy: Ben Temperton.

Tiny specks of ocean life, from the bacterial group Pelagibacterales, thought to be among the most abundant organisms on Earth, plays an important function in the stabilisation of the Earth’s atmosphere.

From the University of Exeter

Scientists have discovered that a tiny, yet plentiful, ocean organism is playing an important role in the regulation of the Earth’s climate.

Research, published in the journal Nature Microbiology, has found that the bacterial group Pelagibacterales, thought to be among the most abundant organisms on Earth, comprising up to half a million microbial cells found in every teaspoon of seawater, plays an important function in the stabilisation of the Earth’s atmosphere.

Dr Ben Temperton, lecturer in the department of Biosciences at the University of Exeter, was a member of the international team of researchers that has for the first time identified Pelagibacterales as a likely source for the production of dimethylsulfide (DMS), which is known to stimulate cloud formation, and is integral to a negative feedback loop known as the CLAW hypothesis.

Under this hypothesis, the temperature of the Earth’s atmosphere is stabilised through a negative feedback loop where sunlight increases the abundance of certain phytoplankton, which in turn produce more dimethylsulfoniopropionate (DMSP). This is broken down into DMS by other members of the microbial community. Through a series of chemical processes, DMS increases cloud droplets, which in turn reduces the amount of sunlight hitting the ocean surface.

Tiny ocean life has climate role

These latest findings reveal the significance of Pelagibacterales in this process and open up a path for further research.

Dr Temperton said: “This work shows that the Pelagibacterales are likely an important component in climate stability. If we are going to improve models of how DMS impacts climate, we need to consider this organism as a major contributor.”

The research also revealed new information about the way in which the Pelagibacteralesproduces DMS.

Dr Temperton added: “What’s fascinating is the elegance and simplicity of DMS production in the Pelagibacterales. These organisms don’t have the genetic regulatory mechanisms found in most bacteria. Having evolved in nutrient-limited oceans, they have some of the smallest genomes of all free-living organisms, because small genomes take fewer resources to replicate.

“The production of DMS in Pelagibacterales is like a pressure release valve. When there is too much DMSP for Pelagibacterales to handle, it flows down a metabolic pathway that generates DMS as a waste product. This valve is always on, but only comes into play when DMSP concentrations exceed a threshold. Kinetic regulation like this is not uncommon in bacteria, but this is the first time we’ve seen it in play for such an important biogeochemical process.”

Dr Jonathan Todd from UEA’s School of Biological Sciences said: “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.

“We studied it at a molecular genetic level to discover exactly how it generates a gas called dimethylsulfide (DMS), which is known for stimulating cloud formation.

“Our research shows how a compound called dimethylsulfoniopropionate that is made in large amounts by marine plankton is then broken down into DMS by these tiny ocean organisms called Pelagibacterales.

“The resultant DMS gas may then have a role in regulating the climate by increasing cloud droplets that in turn reduce the amount of sunlight hitting the ocean’s surface.”

Dr Emily Fowler from UEA’s School of Biological Sciences worked on the characterisation of the Pelagibacterales DMS generating enzymes as part of her successful PhD at UEA. She said: “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. This likely means we have been vastly underestimating the microbial contribution to the production of this important gas.”


Marine phytoplankton produce 109 tonnes of dimethylsulfoniopropionate (DMSP) per year, an estimated 10% of which is catabolized by bacteria through the DMSP cleavage pathway to the climatically active gas dimethyl sulfide. SAR11 Alphaproteobacteria (order Pelagibacterales), the most abundant chemo-organotrophic bacteria in the oceans, have been shown to assimilate DMSP into biomass, thereby supplying this cell’s unusual requirement for reduced sulfur. Here, we report that Pelagibacter HTCC1062 produces the gas methanethiol, and that a second DMSP catabolic pathway, mediated by a cupin-like DMSP lyase, DddK, simultaneously shunts as much as 59% of DMSP uptake to dimethyl sulfide production. We propose a model in which the allocation of DMSP between these pathways is kinetically controlled to release increasing amounts of dimethyl sulfide as the supply of DMSP exceeds cellular sulfur demands for biosynthesis.


Jing Sun, Jonathan D. Todd, J. Cameron Thrash, Yanping Qian, Michael C. Qian, Ben Temperton, Jiazhen Guo, Emily K. Fowler, Joshua T. Aldrich, Carrie D. Nicora, Mary S. Lipton, Richard D. Smith, Patrick De Leenheer, Samuel H. Payne, Andrew W.B. Johnston, Cleo L. Davie-Martin, Kimberly H. Halsey and Stephen J. Giovannoni; The abundant marine bacterium Pelagibacter simultaneously catabolizes dimethylsulfoniopropionate to the gases dimethyl sulfide and methanethiol; Nature Microbiology, article number: 16065 (2016) doi:10.1038/nmicrobiol.2016.65.


University of Exeter news release via EurekAlert!

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