Marine Bacteria Known as Rhodopsins More Abundant in Ocean than Previously Thought

Scientists at the University of Southern California have discovered sunshine grabbing pigments known as rhodopsins, are more abundant in the ocean than previously thought.
Donna Fuscaldo
Underwater coral reef with sunlight Andrey_Kuzmin/iStock

Marine bacteria containing sunshine grabbing pigments known as rhodopsins, are more abundant in the ocean than previously thought, and could absorb as much light energy as chlorophyll. 

Researchers at the University of Southern California led by Laura Gómez-Consarnau, assistant professor of biology at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts, and Sciences, found that rhodopsins will become more abundant in warming oceans in the future.


Rhodopsins more abundant in warming oceans

“Oceans are important for climate change because they play a key role in the carbon cycle. Understanding how that works, and the marine organisms involved, helps us refine our climate models to predict climate in the future,” said Gómez-Consarnau in a USC report on the research. The study, the first to measure ocean distribution of the three pigment groups used to capture solar energy to convert to food was published in Science Advances and included an international team of scientists located in California, China, the UK, and Spain. 

According to the scientists, the new research flies in the face of the traditional interpretation of marine ecology which says almost all of the sunlight in the ocean is collected by chlorophyll found in algae. But the researchers found the rhodopsin bacteria acts similar to a hybrid car in that it's powered by organic matter when it is available and by sunlight when there aren't enough nutrients. 

Scientists studied a 3,000 mile stretch of ocean

To come up with its conclusion, scientists study a 3,000-mile stretch of the eastern Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterrane Sea back in 2014. They sampled microorganisms in the water to gauge how much rhodopsins were found in the ocean and what conditions they thrived in. As a result of that research, they discovered the rhodopsin photosystems were in more abundance than previously thought and tend to be in waters that lack nutrients. What's more, the scientists said the rhodopsin is better than algae at capturing sunlight. 

“Rhodopsins appear to be more abundant in a nutrient-poor ocean, and in the future, the ocean will be more nutrient-poor as temperatures change,” Gómez-Consarnau said. “With fewer nutrients near the surface, algae will have limited photosynthesis and the rhodopsin process will be more abundant. We may have a shift in the future, which means the ocean won’t be able to absorb as much carbon as it does today. More CO2 gas may remain in the atmosphere, and the planet may warm faster.”

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