Hinterland Green

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Earth's Nitrogen Cycle Overturned By Archaea, 'Tiny Ammonia Eater Of The Seas'

A few years ago, researchers at the University of Washington cultured a tiny organism from the bottom of a Seattle Aquarium tank and discovered that it can digest ammonia, which is a key environmental function. The new results, which were published online September 30 in the journal Nature, show that this minute organism and its siblings play a more central role in the planet's ecology than previously thought. The findings show that these microorganism, which are members of the archaea, beat out all other marine life in the dash for ammonia. According to Science Daily, ecologists now assume that ammonia in the upper ocean will first be gobbled up by phytoplankton to make new cells, leaving very little ammonia for microbes to turn into nitrate.
Ammonia is a waste product that can be toxic to animals. But plants, including phytoplankton, prize ammonia as the most energy-efficient way to build new cells. The new paper also shows that archaea can scavenge nitrogen-containing ammonia in the most barren environments of the deep sea, solving a long-running mystery of how the microorganisms can survive in that environment. Archaea therefore not only play a role, but are central to the planetary nitrogen cycles on which all life depends.

In the tree of life, archaea occupy their own branch. Archaea were discovered only about 30 years ago and were first thought to exist only in extreme environments, such as hot springs or hydrothermal vents. They are now known to be more widespread.

In the early 1990s scientists collecting seawater found strands of genetic material that suggested at least 20 percent of the ocean's microbes are archaea, and circumstantial evidence suggested they might live off ammonia. Stahl's group in 2005 was the first to isolate the organism, which they got from a tropical tank in the Seattle Aquarium, and demonstrate that it can, in fact, grow by oxidizing ammonia. His lab and others have since found the organism in many marine environments, including Puget Sound and the North Sea. The microbe is likely ubiquitous on land and in the seas, they say.

The new experiments show that the organism can survive on a mere whiff of ammonia – 10 nanomolar concentration, equivalent to a teaspoon of ammonia salt in 10 million gallons of water. In the deep ocean there is no light and little carbon, so this trace amount of ammonia is the organism's only source of energy.

That finding has two important implications for ocean ecosystems. Scientists knew that something was turning ammonia into nitrate in the deep ocean, but could not fathom what organism might be responsible. Now it appears archaea are those mysterious organisms. And in the sun-dappled upper ocean waters, it appears that archaea can out-compete phytoplankton for ammonia. The same may be true in soil environments, the researchers say. Source: Science Daily
The archaea measure 0.2 micrometers across, about eight millionths of an inch. The only life forms smaller are viruses. One speculation is that the archaea's size could explain how they are able to survive on such a scant energy supply. The strain used in these experiments is named Nitrosopumilus maritimus, which means "tiny ammonia-oxidizer of the sea."
blog comments powered by Disqus