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A team led by scientists from Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California San Diego and the J. Craig Venter Institute (JCVI) has demonstrated that the excess carbon dioxide added to the atmosphere through the combustion of fossil fuels interferes with the health of phytoplankton which form the base of marine food webs.
As reported in the March 14 edition of Nature, the team shows that a mechanism widely used by phytoplankton to acquire iron has a requirement for carbonate ions. Rising concentrations of atmospheric CO2 are acidifying the ocean and decreasing carbonate, and the team shows how this loss of carbonate affects the ability of phytoplankton to obtain enough of the nutrient iron for growth. Ocean acidification is poised to decrease the concentration of sea surface carbonate ions 50 percent by the end of this century.
Study - Phytotransferrin - High-affinity - Iron - Uptake
The study, "Carbonate-sensitive phytotransferrin controls high-affinity iron uptake in diatoms," was funded by the National Science Foundation, the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, and the U.S. Department of Energy. It reveals an unexpected twist to the theory of how iron controls the growth of phytoplankton. By showing how the loss of seawater carbonate hampers the ability of phytoplankton to grab onto iron, the authors show a direct connection between the effects of ocean acidification and the health of phytoplankton at the base of the marine food chain.
"Ultimately our study reveals the possibility of a 'feedback mechanism' operating in parts of the ocean where iron already constrains the growth of phytoplankton," said Jeff McQuaid, lead author of the study who made the discoveries as a PhD student at Scripps Oceanography. "In these regions, high concentrations of atmospheric CO2 could decrease phytoplankton growth, restricting the ability of the ocean to absorb CO2 and thus leading to ever higher concentrations of CO2 accumulating in the atmosphere."
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