According to a research paper recently published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, phyoplankton is able to survive in regions of the ocean where iron is very scarce due to a “newly identified organic mechanism controlling the bio-availability of iron to oceanic life.”
Dr Carol Nichols, co-author of the research, says that “Phytoplankton and other microbes living in the oceans produce long sugar polymers, or polysaccharides, as a survival strategy. Polysaccharides help the microbial community stick to each other and to nutrients that may otherwise be difficult to access from the surrounding ocean.”
“Working with laboratory cultures of Southern Ocean phytoplankton, the study shows that biologically-produced polysaccharides help keep iron accessible to phytoplankton by increasing its solubility in the upper layers of the oceans where photosynthesis occurs.”
What does this mean for global warming?
Plankton is very important because it regulates ocean food chains and, through photosynthesis, can convert carbon dioxide into organic carbon.
This process accounts for the removal of 40% of carbon dioxide, a gas that many scientists account as one of the major contributors to global warming, from the atmosphere. While iron is known to stimulate the production of phytoplankton.
Some scientists believe that a solution to global warming could be fertilising the oceans with iron in an attempt to increase the numbers of phytoplankton, but many warn that such a solution could be far more dangerous than the problem that is trying to solve.
This new research might shed some light on the issue.
“If we can understand the processes behind cycling of iron and other micronutrients in the oceans more fully, then we will be in a better position to counsel on proposals for such environmental engineering,” said Dr Nichols.
Photo by Chad Kainz