Friday, July 11, 2014

Ocean Bacteria's Genes Are in Perfect Harmony

microbes under scanning electron microscope 

A scanning electron microscope image of marine bacteria. New research suggests that bacteria in the ocean sync their gene expression to the day-night cycle.

Ocean bacteria may be the ultimate synchronized swimmers.

The tiny sea dwellers coordinate the genes they turn on and off in sync with the day-night cycle — and each other, a new study shows.

The pattern, described today (July 10) in the journal Science, is driven in large part by phototrophs, or organisms such as cyanobacteria that convert solar energy into food. By turning certain genes on or off at the same times, these bacteria can share their resources, the researchers suggest. 

"The solar energy that's absorbed by the phototrophs is very quickly and immediately and in great synchrony passed onto the rest of the organisms that live in the oceans," said David Karl, an oceanographer at the University of Hawaii who was part of the expedition that collected data, but did not co-author the new study.

Hidden life

Though creatures such as coral, fish and sharks may be the most conspicuous sea life, the most abundant organisms in the ocean are bacteria, with about 1 billion bacteria per liter of ocean water (3.8 billion bacteria per gallon), Karl said.

Yet most marine bacteria can't be cultured in a petri dish, meaning that scientists understood relatively little about how these hidden inhabitants live. To reveal the bacteria's secret lives, DeLong and his colleagues sent a robot into the oceans around Hawaii.

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