Climate Change Will Alter Ocean Bacteria Crucial to Food Chain

The Guardian reports on a new study that finds climate change will have unprecedented impacts on ocean bacteria, with dramatic ripple effects up the marine food chain.

Climate change will have irreversible and unprecedented impacts on crucial ocean microorganisms that could trigger dramatic effects further up the food chain, according to scientists.

The bacteria trichodesmium is known for surviving in nutrient-poor parts of the ocean, where it converts nitrogen gas into a material that can be used by other forms of life – from plankton to whales – which all require it to grow.

This process of “nitrogen fixation” makes the bacteria “the fertilising agent of the open ocean”, says Eric Webb, co-author of the study published in Nature Communications. Although a microorganism, it forms in colonies that can be seen by the naked eye, earning it the name “sea sawdust”.

This could…[trigger] catastrophic effects much further up the marine food chain, on creatures such as fish.”

When the scientists placed it in conditions simulating carbon dioxide levels in 85 years’ time, the bacteria went into reproductive overdrive. The scientists say that this could cause it to go into reproductive overdrive in the future, consuming vast quantities of nutrients – such as iron and phosphorus – that are in limited supply in the ocean.

This could leave other organisms that depend on the same nutrients without enough to survive. Alternatively, greater numbers of trichodesmium could consume the resources at an unsustainable rate, creating the conditions for its own extinction. This could in turn leave other organisms without the products processed through “nitrogen fixation” by the bacteria, triggering catastrophic effects much further up the marine food chain, on creatures such as fish.

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