Chemists discover previously unknown metabolic pathway in plankton

November 1, 2018, Friedrich Schiller University of Jena
Prof. Dr Georg Pohnert and his team at the University Jena found a new chemical compound produced by single-cell algae and bacteria, which form part of the plankton in the sea. Credit: Jan-Peter Kasper/FSU

Sulfur is found in many different compounds throughout the world – not only in the atmosphere, but also in the oceans and on land. All these manifestations are connected in a cycle. To put things simply, the element in its mineral form is reduced and transferred into organic compounds. These are passed around by organisms before finally reaching the atmosphere, where they are oxidized before they return to the land and seas in the rain. While this has been known for some time, chemists at the Friedrich Schiller University Jena (Germany) and their U.S. colleagues have now discovered a completely unexpected shortcut in the cycle. This process is determined by tiny organisms in the ocean's plankton. The scientists have described their discovery in the latest edition of the renowned research journal Nature.

"We've found that certain single-cell and bacteria, which form part of the plankton in the sea, produce a new chemical compound with the complicated name dimethylsulphoniopropionate, or DMSOP for short," explains Prof. Dr. Georg Pohnert from the University of Jena. "This has allowed us to deduce valuable information about the global cycle, and we can now provide a new explanation for huge quantities of sulfur flow in the cycle. Even though one microalga only produces negligible quantities of the compound, we're talking about several teragrams in total, so several billion kilograms a year." This is because single-cell algae are incredibly active in the world's oceans. The findings made by Jena's chemists give us a better understanding of the Earth's sulfur cycle, which offers important knowledge for atmospheric and climatic models.

Stress protection for algae

However, the scientists also found one reason for the production of DMSOP by investigating how the algae adapt to their environment. "These single-cell organisms are permanently moving around in the sea, and so they're constantly exposed to different salt contents and oxidative stress," explains Pohnert. "The new compound now shows how this stress can be balanced out through a sophisticated system of chemical reactions. One way of doing this is by producing and breaking down highly polar organic molecules. And the new sulfurous metabolic product plays a key role here."

Jena's scientists, whose work was supported by the German Research Foundation's ChemBioSys collaborative research centre, examined water samples from various regions of the oceans, in order to establish whether the production of the sulfurous compound was a global phenomenon. "We found DMSOP in all samples from the Arctic to the Mediterranean," explains Prof. Pohnert. "So, producers of the sulfurous compound can be found everywhere."

These new results have provided the chemists at the University of Jena with important information about the functioning of microbial communities in the ocean, and the results are also relevant for possible applications. "More and more algae are being grown in aquaculture to produce animal feed, foodstuffs and energy. That's why it's important to fully understand their metabolism," says the expert from Jena. "Our current insights have once again revealed what an incredibly complex and effective system is hidden away in plankton."

Explore further: The odor of stones

More information: Kathleen Thume et al. The metabolite dimethylsulfoxonium propionate extends the marine organosulfur cycle, Nature (2018). DOI: 10.1038/s41586-018-0675-0

Related Stories

The odor of stones

February 4, 2016

Diatoms are unicellular algae that are native in many waters. They are a major component of marine phytoplankton and the food base for a large variety of marine organisms. In addition, they produce about one fifth of the ...

Sex or food? Decision-making in single-cell organisms

October 17, 2018

Unicellular diatoms are able to adapt their behavior to different external stimuli based on an evaluation of their own needs. This was discovered by scientists of the Friedrich Schiller University and the Max Planck Institute ...

Short circuit in the food web

July 9, 2014

They are amongst the most numerous inhabitants of the sea: tiny haptophytes of the type Emiliania huxleyi. Not visible to the naked eye, when they are in bloom in spring, they form square kilometer sized patches, they are ...

Chemists reveal how algae delete unwanted 'competitors'

January 30, 2012

Every morning when the sun comes up, the ocean ground is radically cleaned. As soon as the first rays of sunlight find their way into the water, the microalgae "Nitzschia cf pellucida" start their deadly 'morning hygiene'. ...

Recommended for you

Fish-inspired material changes color using nanocolumns

March 20, 2019

Inspired by the flashing colors of the neon tetra fish, researchers have developed a technique for changing the color of a material by manipulating the orientation of nanostructured columns in the material.


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.