The war on bugs affects the oceans and CO2 exchange

From Oregon State University

A war without end — with Earth’s carbon cycle held in the balance

This SAR11 bacterium is infected with a Pelagiphage virus. (Image courtesy of Oregon State University)

CORVALLIS, Ore. – The greatest battle in Earth’s history has been going on for hundreds of millions of years, isn’t over yet, and until now no one knew it existed, scientists reported today in the journal Nature.

In one corner is SAR11, a bacterium that’s the most abundant organism in the oceans, survives where most other cells would die and plays a major role in the planet’s carbon cycle. It had been theorized that SAR11 was so small and widespread that it must be invulnerable to attack.

In the other corner, and so strange looking that scientists previously didn’t even recognize what they were, are “Pelagiphages,” viruses now known to infect SAR11 and routinely kill millions of these cells every second. And how this fight turns out is of more than casual interest, because SAR11 has a huge effect on the amount of carbon dioxide that enters the atmosphere, and the overall biology of the oceans.

“There’s a war going on in our oceans, a huge war, and we never even saw it,” said Stephen Giovannoni, a professor of microbiology at Oregon State University. “This is an important piece of the puzzle in how carbon is stored or released in the sea.”

Researchers from OSU, the University of Arizona and other institutions today outlined the discovery of this ongoing conflict, and its implications for the biology and function of ocean processes. The findings disprove the theory that SAR11 cells are immune to viral predation, researchers said.

“In general, every living cell is vulnerable to viral infection,” said Giovannoni, who first discovered SAR11 in 1990. “What has been so puzzling about SAR11 was its sheer abundance, there was simply so much of it that some scientists believed it must not get attacked by viruses.”

What the new research shows, Giovannoni said, is that SAR11 is competitive, good at scavenging organic carbon, and effective at changing to avoid infection. Because of that, it thrives and persists in abundance even though it’s constantly being killed by the new viruses that have been discovered.

The discovery of the Pelagiphage viral families was made by Yanlin Zhao, Michael Schwalbach and Ben Temperton, postdoctoral researchers working with Giovannoni. They used traditional research methods, growing cells and viruses from nature in a laboratory, instead of sequencing DNA from nature. The new viruses were so unique that computers could not recognize the virus DNA.

“The viruses themselves, of course, appear to be just as abundant as SAR11,” Giovannoni said. “Our colleagues at the University of Arizona demonstrated this with new technologies they developed for measuring viral diversity.”

SAR11 has several unique characteristics, including the smallest known genetic structure of any independent cell. Through sheer numbers, this microbe has a huge role in consuming organic carbon, which it uses to generate energy while producing carbon dioxide and water in the process. SAR11 recycles organic matter, providing the nutrients needed by algae to produce about half of the oxygen that enters Earth’s atmosphere every day.

This carbon cycle ultimately affects all plant and animal life on Earth.

###

Contributors to this research included scientists at OSU’s High Throughput Culturing Laboratory; the University of Arizona’s Tucson Marine Phage Lab; University of California/San Diego’s National Center for Microscopy and Imaging Research; and the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, which provided opportunity to sample viruses from nature. Funding was provided by the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation Marine Microbiology Initiative.

 

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29 Responses to The war on bugs affects the oceans and CO2 exchange

  1. Camburn says:

    Very interesting discovery.

  2. Ian says:

    This sentence gives entirely the wrong impression “Because of that, it thrives and persists in abundance even though it’s constantly being killed by the new viruses that have been discovered.”

    The bacteria were constantly being killed by these viruses before the viruses were discovered.

  3. Gary Hladik says:

    We’re lucky to have discovered this bacterium–and its predators–before humanity drives them extinct!

    http://wattsupwiththat.com/2010/01/04/where-are-the-corpses/

  4. starzmom says:

    It just goes to show how much we don’t know. What’s that old quote—it’s not what we know, and it’s not what we know we don’t know, it’s what we don’t know that we don’t know that is a problem. Something like that. Anyway, everyday we are learning something that we didn’t know we didn’t know.

  5. J Broadbent says:

    See Ya!
    I’m off to Loch Ness with my giant petri dish. I am going to grow a ‘wee nessie’ instead of just looking for one!
    Oh, what fools we have been!
    On a serious note great to see interesting research that looks at that massive exchange of gases across the air-water interface.

  6. Louis says:

    “Through sheer numbers, this microbe has a huge role in consuming organic carbon, which it uses to generate energy while producing carbon dioxide and water in the process. SAR11 recycles organic matter, providing the nutrients needed by algae to produce about half of the oxygen that enters Earth’s atmosphere every day.”

    So who are they cheering for in this war, the bacterium that produces CO2 or the virus that kills it? I’ll root for the bacterium to continue holding it’s own since I care more about the oxygen produced by the algae it feeds than I do about the CO2. But I do wonder if warmists would be foolish enough to side with the virus if doing so would reduce the amount of CO2 released to the atmosphere.

  7. gymnosperm says:

    Recent news roundup: Critters in the stratosphere, critters in lakes 800m under the ice in West Antarctica.

    Aside: Some of us believe after Mr. Gold that critters deep in the earth had a hand in producing the oil in our motors.

    “SAR11 recycles organic matter, providing the nutrients needed by algae to produce about half of the oxygen that enters Earth’s atmosphere every day.”

    Yes and one of those nutrients is CO2.

    Prediction: The “algae” are cyanobacteria. Viruses will be found that chew on these as well.

    Discussion: IMHO there is a nano carbon cycle of enormous magnitude between these critters that is so small in space and so instantaneous we have not yet measured it. It is eerily reminiscent of the massive energy exchange, greater than we reputedly recieve from the sun, that takes place between the surface and GHG’s in the atmosphere.

  8. Alex Heyworth says:

    Given the past history of life on this planet, even if SAR11 were wiped out another organism would rapidly fill the niche it now occupies.

  9. John Andrews says:

    I wonder if this process is in the IPPC computer models? /sarc

    — John Andrews

  10. Geoff Sherrington says:

    The concept passes the first test. It does not appear to have an author from PIK.

  11. Robert Kral says:

    Any biologist who assumed that any form of life has no predators or pathogens is not much of a biologist.

  12. A.D. Everard says:

    “This carbon cycle ultimately affects all plant and animal life on Earth.”

    I suppose that means the status quo must remain undisturbed.

    Why do I get the feeling there’s another threat lurking in the near future? Is this shortly going to be something else claimed to endagered by humans or human induced CO2?

    Sorry to be cynical, but I can’t help feeling somewhere down the track there’s going to be something Out of Balance and we’re going to be told it’s Our Fault.

    I no longer trust any findings on CO2 unless the scientists distance themselves from alarmism. While the scientists here might be legit, there’s a lot the alarmists can mangle with claims that humans are “upsetting the balance” – whether these people report that or not.

    I also no longer trust science journals. Sorry.

  13. A.D. Everard says:

    typo – “endangered” -

  14. Bigger bugs have little bugs
    Upon their backs to bite them.
    And little bugs have lesser bugs,
    And so on, ad infinitum.
    – paraphrasing Jonathan Swift and Augustus De Morgan

  15. Bob in Castlemaine says:

    But hang on guys, everyone knows the science is settled…. Don’t they?

  16. David Cage says:

    Climate scientists were told by engineers a quarter of a century ago that the system was a negative feedback, essentially balance seeking one. They were also told by biologists that bacteria were more important in the balance than insects and man even less so. The message was ignored thanks largely to politicians who saw political capital in the AGW doctrine for either socialist or in Thatcher’s case anti NUM and Scargill action.

  17. oldfossil says:

    gymnosperm says:
    February 13, 2013 at 7:17 pm

    “SAR11 recycles organic matter, providing the nutrients needed by algae to produce about half of the oxygen that enters Earth’s atmosphere every day.”

    Yes and one of those nutrients is CO2.

    Good deduction gymnosperm. The implications for Gaia Theory are enormous. I’ll leave it to smarter people than me to sort out the details :)

  18. Thomas says:

    “Through sheer numbers, this microbe has a huge role in consuming organic carbon, which it uses to generate energy while producing carbon dioxide and water in the process. SAR11 recycles organic matter, providing the nutrients needed by algae to produce about half of the oxygen that enters Earth’s atmosphere every day.”

    The author forgets that when the bacteria consume organic matter, converting it to CO2 they also consume oxygen. It’s the organic matter that doesn’t decay but is stored in the bottom sediments that help keep the oxygen level up. So this bacterium doesn’t help keep the oxygen level up, but by recycling nutrients it makes the oceans more productive.

  19. Vince Causey says:

    The theory of carbon sinks is becoming more interesting by the day. Climate models are naively based upon good ol’ Henry’s law – that is, it is ocean temps that regulate the amount of co2 that can be taken up or released from the oceans.

    But organisms like SAR11 must have a role to play, since they exist in “huge numbers,” and populations of living organisms tend to gyrate. Is it not likely, that population cycles of organisms have as much an impact on the oceans co2 sinks as Henry does? Are climate models in fact, idiotically simplistic?

  20. kim says:

    The sun is very sultry and we must avoid its ultry-violet rays.

    Ultra-violet from the sun ranges widely. Ultra-violet radiation kills viruses. Viral kill takes 20% daily of phytoplankton. This is a mechanism with vast temporal capability, milliseconds to millenia.

    H/t to N. Coward, Plum, and blueice2hotsea.
    =============

  21. phlogiston says:

    and until now no one knew it existed

    BOLLOCKS! I studied marine biology in 1983 (Southampton University) and they taught us about viruses of marine bacteria.

  22. michael hart says:

    John Andrews says:
    February 13, 2013 at 7:43 pm

    I wonder if this process is in the IPPC computer models? /sarc

    …Or that oceanic photosynthesis is much greater than previously thought, but much of it is actually quickly reversed, possibly as a means of reducing photo-bleaching/UV-damage in light-rich, but nutrient-limited oceans.

    Comparatively speaking, the science seems barely started on some of these concepts. So we know IPCC models aren’t going to touch them anytime soon, as judged by recent history. Besides, they’ve got their story and look like they’re going to stick with it.

  23. ferd berple says:

    There are in excess of 1 million viruses per cubic cm (1/5 of a teaspoon) of sea water. Remember that the next time you swim in the ocean. In contrast there are probably something like .0000000000000001 sharks per cubic cm of sea water.

    What has been largely ignored by politically correct science is that microbes control the climate of the earth and have done so for a billion plus years as a by product of evolution. Those microbes that were not able to stabilize the climate were killed off by natural variability of climate, until one evolved that could keep the climate within the necessary limits to keep itself alive. This microbe thru its descendants controls the climate on planet earth to this day.

    Humans fools themselves into thinking they control the climate because they are self-important. They see themselves at the center of their personal universe, with everything else in orbit around them. Politically correct science preys on this delusion to inflate its own importance which is fundamental to gaining increased funding. No one will pay money to a microbe to keep them alive, but they will pay millions to politicians, scientists, and religious figures that make the same claim.

    You are paying for salvation, from people that are falsely claiming they can supply it, by way of an implied threat. Give me all your money and I promise you will live. In other words, give me all your money or you will die. Nothing more than a sophisticated highwayman.

  24. DesertYote says:

    Mans affects on the chemistry of the atmosphere are insignificant to the power of fungi and bacteria.

    phlogiston says:
    February 14, 2013 at 4:32 am

    and until now no one knew it existed

    BOLLOCKS! I studied marine biology in 1983 (Southampton University) and they taught us about viruses of marine bacteria.
    ###
    This is part of a pattern. The knowledge of the past is denigrated, dismissed, ignored and finally forgotten, because it was the product of European Male scientist, who infused their work with all sorts of ignorant biases. This leaves this knowledge open to become new ground breaking discoveries, by young post-doctorates, energized by their desire to promote proper thinking, and enabling the science to be remessaged so that it supports the noble work of those trying to change society.

  25. C.Artus says:

    Russian medical science has a long history of studying and utilising bactereophages ( as an alternative to antibiotics). Every bacterium has its corresponding phage. Perhaps if these researchers had consulted more widely they wouldn’t have been so surprised.

  26. Peter Fraser says:

    I have often wondered what effect the decline in the vast numbers of cachalot due to whaling in previous centuries had on oceanic carbon cycles. Cachalots live on zooplankton. Did zooplankton numbers increase hugely when the cachalot declined in numbers? Zooplankton live on phytoplankton which convert CO2 into oxygen. Has there been a massive decline in phytoplankton numbers during the last three centuries and and could this be related to increased CO2 during this time (apart from fossil fuel burning.) Something for biomass scientists to ponder.

  27. Keitho says:

    So physicists see everything in terms of physics while ignoring biologists. Well, well there’s a surprise.

  28. phlogiston says:

    The chief predators of marine bacteria (apart from viruses) are the heterotrophic microflagellates. Different flagellates specialise on different categories of bacteria, for instance the species Bodo prefers aggegated bacteria while Paraphysomonas finds the free bacteria more to its liking. I remember studying the grazing of bacteria by flagellates, the experimental set up was just a grain of rice in a flask of seawater, wrapped i aluminum foil to keep out light so that alge would not grow.

    It would be interesting to see if viruses have any such preference. Also – what happens to bacteria after being killed by a vira phage? The virus does not exactly eat the bacterium. The dead bacteria just becomes organic carbon – contributing eventually to more bacteria.

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