Eukaryotic Diatoms. Photo: Wikipedia, Public domain
Small Creatures with a Big Impact
Understanding the ocean's carbon fixation cycle is extremely important if we are to better understand how CO2 emissions affect the global climate. Until recently, it was thought that cyanobacteria overwhelmingly accounted for phytoplankton's role in carbon sequestration in the ocean. Cyanobacteria, like all bacteria, are prokaryotes (they don't have a nucleus). Another less common type of phytoplankton is bigger and eukaryotic (has a nucleus). The way it absorbs carbon wasn't well understood until now. Well, it turns out that these bigger cells do very good job!
In research, published today 15th April 2010 in the Journal of the International Society for Microbial Ecology, the scientists report how they measured carbon fixation by dominant phytoplankton groups in the subtropical and tropical northeast Atlantic Ocean, using samples collected from surface waters during a research cruise aboard the Royal Research Ship Discovery.
They discovered that eukaryotic phytoplankton actually fix significant amounts of carbon, contributing up to 44% of the total, despite being considerably less abundant than cyanobacteria. "This is most likely because eukaryotic phytoplankton cells, although small, are bigger than cyanobacteria, allowing them to assimilate more fixed carbon," says Zubkov. (source)
This goes to show how important it is to better understand our oceans. They cover most of the surface of our planet and have a major impact on basically all ecosystems and physical feedback systems (like the climate). Yet until now, we weren't quite sure how much carbon eukaryotic phytoplankton absorbed...
We have so much to learn! And this doesn't mean that we shouldn't take action to reduce CO2 emissions (like the so-called skeptics claim), but rather the contrary; when you don't understand how your life-support system works, you should be more careful when tinkering with it.
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