From DMSP munching microbes to global climate

From the University of Technology Sydney press release

(Note: unfortunately the actual paper was not provided with the press release)

Tiny marine microbes exert influence on global climate

16 Jul 2010

Observations show that microorganisms display a behaviour characteristic of larger animals.

New research indicates that the interactions of microscopic organisms around a particular organic material may alter the chemical properties of the ocean and ultimately influence global climate by affecting cloud formation in the atmosphere.

Justin Seymour, a research fellow at the UTS Faculty of Science, is the lead author of a paper published in the July 16 issue of Science that describes how a relative of the smelly chemical that sea birds and seals use to locate prey, dimethylsulfide (DMS), may serve a similar purpose at the microbial scale, helping marine microorganisms find food and cycle chemicals that are important to climate.

“We found that ecological interactions and behavioral responses taking place within volumes of a fraction of a drop of seawater can ultimately influence important ocean chemical cycling processes,” said Seymour.

Using microfluidic technology, the team of researchers led by Professor Roman Stocker of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, recorded microbes swimming toward the chemical dimethylsulfoniopropionate (DMSP) as it was released into a tiny channel occupied by the microbes.

The fact that the microbes actively moved toward the DMSP indicates that the tiny organisms play a role in ocean sulphur and carbon cycles, which exert a powerful influence on Earth’s climate. How fast the microorganisms consume DMSP — rather than converting it into DMS — is important because DMS is involved in the formation of clouds in the atmosphere. This in turn affects the heat balance of the atmosphere.

Seymour, Stocker, Professor Rafel Simó of the Institute for Marine Sciences in Barcelona, and MIT graduate student Tanvir Ahmed carried out the research in the MIT laboratory of Stocker, who pioneered the use of microfluidics and video microscopy in the study of ocean microbes. The new study is the first to make a visual record of microbial behaviour in the presence of DMSP.

“It’s important to be able to directly look at an environment in order to understand its ecology,” Stocker said. “We can now visualize the behavior of marine microorganisms much like ecologists have done with macro-organisms for a long time.”

Experiement modelling marine microbe behaviour

To do this, the team recreated a microcosm of the ocean environment using a microfluidic device about the size of a flash drive with minuscule channels engraved in a clear rubbery material. The scientists injected DMSP into the channel in a way that mimics the bursting of an algal cell after viral infection — a common event in the ocean — then, using a camera attached to a microscope, they recorded whether and how microbes swam towards the chemical.

The researchers found that some marine microbes, including bacteria, are attracted to DMSP because they feed on it, whereas others are drawn to the chemical because it signals the presence of prey. This challenges previous theories that this chemical might be a deterrent against predators.

“Our observations clearly show that, for some plankton, DMSP acts as an attractant towards prey rather than a deterrent,” said Simó, an expert on the role of DMSP in the sulfur cycle, “By simulating the microscale patches of the chemical cue and directly monitoring the swimming responses of the predators towards these patches, we get a much more accurate perception of these important ecological interactions than can be obtained from traditional bulk approaches.”

“Our observations clearly show that, for some plankton, DMSP acts as an attractant towards prey rather than a deterrent,” said Simó, an expert on the role of DMSP in the sulfur cycle.

“By simulating the microscale patches of the chemical cue and directly monitoring the swimming responses of the predators towards these patches, we get a much more accurate perception of these important ecological interactions than can be obtained from traditional bulk approaches.”

The research also indicates that marine microorganisms have at least one behavioral characteristic in common with larger sea and land animals: we’re all drawn to food.

Next steps: The team plans to extend the research from the laboratory to the ocean environment; the team is working on an experimental system that can be used on board oceanographic ships working with bacteria collected directly from the ocean.

Source: “Chemoattraction to Dimethylsulfoniopropionate Throughout the Marine Microbial Food Web,” by Justin R. Seymour, Rafel Simó, Tanvir Ahmed and Roman Stocker. Science, July 16, 2010.

Funding: This research was performed with funding from the Australian Research Council, the Spanish Ministry of Science and Innovation, La Cambra de Barcelona, the Hayashi Fund at MIT, and the National Science Foundation.

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43 thoughts on “From DMSP munching microbes to global climate

  1. “dimethylsulfoniopropionate …”
    Forgive me for say so, but the word has a really great rhythmic sound to it!

  2. “[…] The research also indicates that marine microorganisms have at least one behavioral characteristic in common with larger sea and land animals: we’re all drawn to food. […]”
    OK. Name one species or living organism that is repelled by food. Now THAT would be an astounding finding, eh?

  3. Another natural phenomenon that affects climate… Michael Mann is not going to like this.

  4. Big fleas have little fleas,
    upon their backs to bite em.
    And little fleas have littler fleas,
    and so, ad infinitum.

  5. New research indicates that the interactions of microscopic organisms around a particular organic material may alter the chemical properties of the ocean and ultimately influence global climate by affecting cloud formation in the atmosphere.”

    My bet is that the paper itself has no additional information on the link between the DMSP-seeking behavior and climate change.
    It seems that including a reference to climate change has become both a popular way to increase chances of funding, and to increase chances of getting a paper published.
    Charlie

  6. I keep saying people need to read and understand James Lovelock’s first book, ‘Gaia: A new look at life on Earth’ and get past soundbites they’ve heard. He covered the way microorganisms have fundamentally changed Earth’s atmosphere through the Aeons, and how this affects climate 30 years ago.
    A must read for anyone hoping to understand climate and the reason why Watt counting isn’t going to get you an accurate energy budget.

  7. DocWat says:
    July 16, 2010 at 4:44 am
    Another natural phenomenon that affects climate… Michael Mann is not going to like this.
    Oh, of course he will!
    He’ll just synthesize a new paradigm to blame humans for everything.
    THINK: The hockey puck graph.
    The reasoning is circular!

  8. Roger Knights says:
    July 16, 2010 at 4:56 am
    A reminder that there exists a realm of the unknown unknown.
    Well, yes. And then there’s the unknown unknown unknown, or unknown^3.

  9. Headline: “Biologist makes tenuous link to climate change to improve funding chances shock”

  10. Curiousgeorge says:
    July 16, 2010 at 4:58 am
    Big fleas have little fleas,
    upon their backs to bite em.
    And little fleas have littler fleas,
    and so, ad infinitum.

    Geez, so many fleas!
    Fleas, milli fleas, micro fleas, nano fleas, pico fleas, femto fleas, atto fleas, zepto fleas, yocto fleas …

  11. Argh!!! I can just see it now: “Present Dunce Obama proposes microbe credit trading market”

  12. tallbloke says:
    July 16, 2010 at 5:28 am
    I keep saying people need to read and understand James Lovelock’s first book, ‘Gaia: A new look at life on Earth’ and get past soundbites they’ve heard. He covered the way microorganisms have fundamentally changed Earth’s atmosphere through the Aeons, and how this affects climate 30 years ago.
    A must read for anyone hoping to understand climate and the reason why Watt counting isn’t going to get you an accurate energy budget.

    Kinda sorta like the ‘Goldilocks paradox’: Humans complain about weather & climate all the time, what with ‘this weather is too warm, that weather is too cold, and some other weather is too something else!’
    All the while the real owners of this planet have stepped out for a breather, and are about to discover that the whole place is filled with whining, abusive, effusive and loudmouthed idiots who complain endlessly!

  13. Chemotaxis (moving towards/away from different chemical stimuli) has been known in microorganisms for a long time.
    The work is novel because it challenges the previous idea that the DMSP was a repellent for predators and because it develops a ecological model for what appears to be predator-prey relationships for microbes in a similar way as predator-prey relationships have been described for fox and rabbits etc.

  14. Charlie A says:
    July 16, 2010 at 5:23 am
    …..My bet is that the paper itself has no additional information on the link between the DMSP-seeking behavior and climate change.
    It seems that including a reference to climate change has become both a popular way to increase chances of funding, and to increase chances of getting a paper published.
    _________________________________________________
    Got it in one Charlie. A mention of “climate change” in your paper is a “get out of jail free card” in the “peer reviewed” science of today. The was even a paper written on it.
    Plain Prose: It’s Seldom Seen in Journals
    “If you want to publish an article in some scientific or medical journal, here is some unusual advice from Scott Armstrong, a professor of marketing at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School: Choose an unimportant topic. Agree with existing beliefs. Use convoluted methods. Withhold some of your data. And write the whole thing in stilted, obtuse prose.
    Armstrong, who is the editor of a new research publication called the Journal of Forecasting, offered the advice in a serious. scholarly article last month in the journal’s first issue. He said yesterday that he had studied the publication process in research journals for years.
    “Although these rules clearly run counter to the goal of contributing to scientific knowledge — the professed goal of academic journals — they do increase a paper’s chance of being published,” Armstrong said….
    In one study, Armstrong said, academics reading articles in scientific journals rated the authors’ competence higher when the writing was less intelligible than when it was clear.
    In another study, Armstrong said, research papers were mailed to a sampling of dozens of researchers. Half the scientists received a paper that described an experiment confirming existing beliefs; the other half received a paper describing an identical experiment but with a different conclusion that challenged the consensus.
    Although the methods used in the two sets of papers were identical, the scientists surveyed generally approved of the procedures used in the papers that confirmed existing beliefs and generally disapproved of the same methods when they were used to contradict what most scientists believed, Armstrong said.
    “Papers with surprising results are especially important for adding significantly to what is known. Presumably, the editors of journals want to publish important papers,” Armstrong said. “On the other hand, they are concerned that the journal might look foolish — and so they reject many of the important papers.”
    For young academics who wish to be published in such journals, Armstrong said, “the factors that would seem to be a deadly combination would be choosing an important problem and obtaining surprising results.”
    Other studies, Armstrong said, indicate that obscure writing helps those who have little to say. And having little to say may also be an advantage, especially if the author withholds some significant data. “This will allow the researcher to continue publishing slightly different versions of the same research,” which Armstrong says is a common practice. Armstrong’s own specialty is the study of forecasting, and the new journal that published his how-to-publish article covers forecasting in many study areas, including economics, sociology, finance, psychology, and engineering. “

    Is it any wonder there are so many CAGW papers out there and so few that are skeptical? The whole system is rigged to give a pass to the mediocre me-toos who regurgitate the same information ad nauseum.

  15. Drew Latta: July 16, 2010 at 6:31 am
    The work is novel because it challenges the previous idea that the DMSP was a repellent for predators…
    When WWII broke out, the Navy Department realized that a lot of sailors would wind up in the water if their ships were sunk, and made finding an effective shark repellent a top priority. Marine biologists decided that cupric acetate would be a good shark repellent because rotting shark carcasses release lots of it, and so every sailor and naval aviator was issued a shark repellent packet of dye impregnated with cupric acid.
    It wasn’t until the 1960s that marine biologists actually did *experiments* with sharks and cupric acid and discovered — much to their consternation — that sharks were *attracted* to it.
    Every sailor and aviator in the Navy in WWII had been issued a life preserver with a packet of shark chum attached to it. You’d have thought the aftermath of the Indianapolis‘ sinking would have given them a clue…

  16. I’m rather worried by the results of the climate model I’ve set up below, which clearly indicates that temperatures will be unbearable by the year 2100.

    #include
    #include
    int main (int argc, char **argv)
    {
        int       year;
        double    beasties, temperature;
        beasties = 2.0;
        temperature = 20.0;
        for (year = 2010; year <= 2100; year++) {
            beasties += 0.002 * temperature;
            temperature = 10 * beasties;
            printf ("Year %d Temperature %g\n", year, temperature);
        }
        return 0;
    }
    
  17. 899 says:
    July 16, 2010 at 6:23 am
    “[…]All the while the real owners of this planet have stepped out for a breather, and are about to discover that the whole place is filled with whining, abusive, effusive and loudmouthed idiots who complain endlessly!”
    Well, the planet is filled with life and nothing could turn it into a lifeless planet again. Too much mutation and adaption, too many extremophiles, radiation hardened beasts amongst them like the tardygrades. Which brings to mind the term “dead zone” – oxygen deprived ocean areas. These zones are not dead, they’re full of life; algae and anaerobic life forms. It’s just that “life” means “cute, cuddly life forms, usually vertrebrates of any kind” for the media. Microbes don’t count which is unfair. OTOH when Craig Venter creates a half-synthetic microbe everybody’s up in arms against it. A bit inconsequential.

  18. Gail Combs approvingly quotes Charlie A on of the value of mentioning CAGW in your submitted paper. This is an old technique, older than the 1982 newspaper story about Professor Armstrong that she mentions, and was used in the Soviet Union to get academic publications past the political censors. The introduction and the conclusion of a paper would mention the necessary Marxist phrases, but the paper itself would not contain a single word about them. (Reported by Nicholas V. Riasanovsky, in Adventures in Russian Historical Research: Reminiscences of American Scholars from the Cold War to the Present, by Samuel H. Baron & Cathy A. Frierson, page 5.) Soviet scholars regarded it as a game one must play.

  19. What was the concentration of microbes in the fraction of the drop? What was his experimental error? Does it really reflect the real conditions found in the oceans? I doubt it all. But of course, if they don’t conclude that it affects the planet and it is our fault, they won’t get funding.
    It’s like saying that all the insects in the world affect climate… maybe they do… but this is part of the biosphere. If you remove every single living organism from the earth, the climate will still be variable but it will be a dead planet and of course no possibility to tax anyone.

  20. Bill Tuttle says:
    July 16, 2010 at 7:47 am
    It wasn’t until the 1960s that marine biologists actually did *experiments* with sharks and cupric acid and discovered — much to their consternation — that sharks were *attracted* to it.
    ———————
    Kind of like bear spray made out of capsaicin tends to attract bears if you spray it on things in hopes of using it as a deterrent rather than as it is intended to thwart attacks.

  21. tallbloke says:
    July 16, 2010 at 5:28 am
    “I keep saying people need to read and understand James Lovelock’s first book, ‘Gaia: A new look at life on Earth’ and get past soundbites they’ve heard. He covered the way microorganisms have fundamentally changed Earth’s atmosphere through the Aeons, and how this affects climate 30 years ago.”

    I’m sorry, but I can’t read anything with the word “Gaia” in the title. I just can’t. Sorry.

  22. I suspect the mircobes being researched in this paper are far less than the tip of a 1cc iceberg.
    “Scientists estimate that there are a billion times more microbes on Earth than there are stars in the universe —€” an estimated nonillion (one followed by thirty zeroes) microbes. A spoonful of soil can contain 2,000 to 3,000 different species (not different microbes but different species!) of microbes yet we have only described about 5,700 species. Amazingly, the total mass of all of these invisible creatures exceeds the mass of all plant or animal life on Earth, yet they are largely invisible to us.”
    Courtesy Innovation-America.org, link here:
    http://www.innovation-america.org/new-microbe-hunters
    I wonder just how much of the suns energy is consumed and stored by the mass of these cute little critters?

  23. As a senior scientist (old) I have had to battle algae and fungi in my sailboat bilge and fuel tanks. We have used additives for many decades since we don’t very often refuel.
    I was told crude oil came from plant and animal life billions of years ago. If algae, bacteria, digestive enzymes coud degrade orgainic material then, what changed?
    A lot of benzene and higher vapor pressure solvents in the crude evaporated months ago. The stuff will break down. Just like old asphalt highways even break down.
    Microbes will accelerate the breakdown.

  24. TheSkyIsFalling’s C program is missing the arguments to the #include statements. They were presumably presented in angle brackets, and stripped by WordPress as unusable html code.
    I put in #include [stdio.h] but with angle brackets, not square brackets, and the code compiled and ran without error. That’s one hot C program!
    Perhaps the line below will show stdio.h correctly.

    #include <stdio.h>

  25. Henry chance says:
    July 16, 2010 at 10:21 am
    As a senior scientist (old) I have had to battle algae and fungi in my sailboat bilge and fuel tanks. We have used additives for many decades since we don’t very often refuel.
    I was told crude oil came from plant and animal life billions of years ago. If algae, bacteria, digestive enzymes coud degrade orgainic material then, what changed?
    A lot of benzene and higher vapor pressure solvents in the crude evaporated months ago. The stuff will break down. Just like old asphalt highways even break down.
    Microbes will accelerate the breakdown.
    _________________________________________________
    “An interesting anecdote reveals the resiliency of the marine environment. After off-loading of the remaining 1 million gallons of oil that had not spilled from the Exxon Valdez , the vessel was towed to Outside Bay on Naked Island in PWS. Exxon invited NOAA biologists to inspect the blossoming marine life in the cargo holds. The NOAA scientists observed an environment rich in zooplankton, marine worms, algae, bacterial mats, and jellyfish. They theorized that oil-eating bacteria from the nutrient-rich water of PWS had attracted larger predators such as fish, making the damaged hull a microcosm of the marine food chain.” http://www.wiredchemist.com/environmental/instructional/exxon_valdez.html
    One forgets that oil is naturally occurring and there are leaks all over the bottom of the ocean. As a chemist I absolutely hate the word “chemicals” used to mean “unnatural” there are very very few “unnatural” chemicals. The absence of “chemicals” is vacuum so when I see a package saying “no chemicals added” I always wonder if they are selling absolute vacuum in the package.

  26. I would like to remind the plankton story:
    http://www.nasa.gov/vision/earth/environment/0702_planktoncloud.html
    It’s almost hard to believe, but new NASA-funded research confirms an old theory that plankton can indirectly create clouds that block some of the Sun’s harmful rays. The study was conducted by Dierdre Toole of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) and David Siegel of the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB).

  27. 899 says:
    July 16, 2010 at 6:04 am

    Roger Knights says:
    July 16, 2010 at 4:56 am
    A reminder that there exists a realm of the unknown unknown.

    Well, yes. And then there’s the unknown unknown unknown, or unknown^3.

    Wikipedia says:

    “In epistemology and decision theory, the term ‘unknown unknown’ refers to circumstances or outcomes that were not conceived of by an observer at a given point in time. The meaning of the term becomes more clear when it is contrasted with the known unknown, which refers to circumstances or outcomes that are known to be possible, but it is unknown whether or not they will be realized. The term is used in project planning and decision analysis to explain that any model of the future can only be informed by information that is currently available to the observer and, as such, faces substantial limitations and unknown risk.”

  28. I, with a sound formal undergraduate education in the fundamentals of chemistry and physics, and having been a successful professional civil engineer, long since retired, find reports by journalists on what well qualified scientists said to the journalists to be completely confusing and absurd. It is clear that modern journalists have no understanding of the meanings of words in general, and technical terms in particular.
    I can only guess that the scientists know full well that using any technical term when speaking to journalists is a complete waste of time, else I would have to concur that the scientists had little knowledge of the fundamentals of chemistry and/or physics. I have to go with the assumption that it is the journalists who are completely confused, and at that, with the intent to sensationalize whatever they write about..

  29. The article seems to say that the microorganism is acting like a predator in responding to the chemical they released ,they also say that the chemical being released indicates that an organism is dead killed by a virus attack ,is this not acting like a scavenger then.

  30. The DMS summary at the CO2Science website gives a detailed overview of potential negative feedback by marine microorganisms.
    http://www.co2science.org/subject/d/summaries/dms.php
    The concluding paragraph:
    In conclusion, it is unfortunate that in light of the overwhelming empirical evidence for both land- and ocean-based DMS-driven negative feedbacks to global warming, the effects of these processes have not been properly incorporated into today’s state-of-the-art climate models. Hence, the warming they predict in response to future anthropogenic CO2 emissions must be considerably larger than what could actually occur in the real world. In fact, it is very possible that these biologically-driven phenomena could totally compensate for the warming influence of all greenhouse gas emissions experienced to date, as well as all those that are anticipated to occur in the future.

  31. To be frank, I have to write this type of thing off as a load of trot. These organisms have been present for umpteen glacial cycles, have adapted , survived , and then been subject again and again to the same perturbations adapting and surviving as they go. Why now would they make a difference?

  32. “DMS is involved in the formation of clouds in the atmosphere”
    They didn’t explain this, so I was curious and checked the wikipedia entry
    Excerpts:
    This explains what sea water DMS has to do with the atmosphere:
    “DMS is the most abundant biological sulfur compound emitted to the atmosphere. Emission occurs over the oceans by phytoplankton. DMS is also produced naturally by bacterial transformation of dimethyl sulfoxide (DMSO) waste that is disposed of into sewers, where it can cause environmental odor problems.”
    So the bad news is… DMS is bad for the environment.
    This explains what is has to do with clouds:
    “DMS is oxidized in the marine atmosphere to various sulfur-containing compounds, such as sulfur dioxide, dimethyl sulfoxide (DMSO), dimethyl sulfone, methane sulfonic acid and sulfuric acid. Among these compounds, sulfuric acid has the potential to create new aerosols which act as cloud condensation nuclei”
    Now get this:
    Through this interaction with cloud formation, the massive production of atmospheric DMS over the oceans may have a significant impact on the Earth’s climate.
    In other words, it contributes to more clouds. Since more clouds means more rain, this means a wetter climate, and where there is water, there is life!
    So the good news is… DMS is good for the environment!

  33. Charlie A says@ July 16, 2010 at 5:23 am
    “My bet is that the paper itself has no additional information on the link between the DMSP-seeking behavior and climate change.
    It seems that including a reference to climate change has become both a popular way to increase chances of funding, and to increase chances of getting a paper published.”
    Why would it? A paper doesn’t usually discuss what is in Geology 101 and Biology 101 university texts. It’s background knowledge. Get over it. Better yet, buy or borrow a couple of those texts and read them.

  34. tallbloke says @ July 16, 2010 at 5:28 am:
    “I keep saying people need to read and understand James Lovelock’s first book, ‘Gaia: A new look at life on Earth’ and get past soundbites they’ve heard. He covered the way microorganisms have fundamentally changed Earth’s atmosphere through the Aeons, and how this affects climate 30 years ago.
    A must read for anyone hoping to understand climate and the reason why Watt counting isn’t going to get you an accurate energy budget.”
    Precisely. And not only the atmosphere…

  35. Why can nobody ever summarize? There’s only two kinds of critters on the earth: them that eat and them are eaten. So, who’s eaten in this scenario?

  36. Do modern climo-mythologists also account for volatile organic carbon emissions from conifer trees?
    http://pubs.acs.org/doi/abs/10.1021/es0618907
    Uh….guess Pres. Reagan was right after all!
    Let’s face it, their models are full of holes & missing influences. AGW crowd are very simplistic in their logic & critical of other scientists (biologists particularly) who point stuff like this out.

  37. Whenever there is ample supply of food, species thrive. But not in the case of vegetation and CO2 according to some.

  38. RE: Curiousgeorge: (July 16, 2010 at 4:58 am)
    Big fleas have little fleas,
    upon their backs to bite em.
    And little fleas have littler fleas,
    and so, ad infinitum.

    From “Calculus Made Easy” by Silvanus P. Thomson, FRS,
    October 1914,
    I have on Page 8 —
    “… The witty Dean Swift* once wrote:
    “So Nat’ralists observe, a Flea
    “Hath smaller Fleas that on him prey,
    “And these have smaller Fleas to bite ’em,
    “And so proceed ad infinitum,
    “…”
    “*On Poetry: a Rhapsody (p.20), printed 1733 — usually misquoted.”
    [or, perhaps, modernized]
    RE: “From DMSP munching microbes to global climate”
    As plankton can make the difference between the poor 30-ft visibility in the up-welling waters of Puget Sound and the clear 200-ft visibility in tropical waters around Bermuda, I think that marine biotic activity may have an as yet unappreciated natural influence on our climate cycles.

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