Cloud Formation Vastly Influenced by Tiny Ocean Bacteria

'Clouds above the Atlantic Ocean'

Tiny ocean bacteria may play a huge role in climate regulation.

According to a recent research led by the Oregon State University, Pelagibacterales – an abundant bacterial group dwelling in the planet’s oceans – may play a huge role in the Earth’s climate regulation. Scientists have found that the microorganisms produce large quantities of dimethylsulfide (DMS), a gas that greatly influences cloud formation.

Researchers noted that the tiny ocean bacteria, which are some of the most widely spread living organisms on Earth (every tsp of seawater contains about 500,000 bacteria), may play a dramatic role in the stabilization of our planet’s climate.

Dr. Ben Temperton, one of the researchers involved in the study and bioscience expert at the University of Exeter, in the U.K., was one of the first scientists to learn about the DMS-based climate process. He said that Pelagibacterales regulate climate through a complex negative feedback loop which stabilizes the atmosphere’s temperature across the planet.

Researchers found that the Sun helps a certain group of bacteria thrive in the ocean and release dimethylsulfoniopropionate (DMSP), a compound that is later turned into DMS by other bacterial groups. Next, DMS boosts the amount of cloud droplets, which in turn block more sunlight from reaching the ocean surface.

The latest study reveals that Pelagibacterales may play a key role in this process despite their small size. Dr. Temperton described the microscopic ocean dwellers as “important components in climate stability.” He recommends researchers interested in studying DMS and cloud formation to take into account these bacteria as well.

Dr. Temperton is also fascinated by the beauty and simplicity of the process through which the bacteria produce DMS. He noted that the tiny organisms had to adapt to nutrient-limited environments in the oceans and could only survive through some of the smallest genomes on the planet since small genomes don’t need many nutrients to replicate.

The research team explained that Pelagibacterales are forced to produce DMS when there is too much DMSP in their environment. In fact, the tiny bacteria produce the cloud-regulating gas as a waste product. Scientists likened DMS production to a pressure valve release. Though the valve is permanently turned on, gas production starts only when DMS concentrations are too high.

Dr. Jonathan Todd of the University of East Anglia and researcher involved in the study noted that the team had to study the bacteria at a molecular level to better understand how they release DMS, which in turn stimulates cloud formation.

Image Source: Wikimedia

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