Did you know that half of the oxygen that you are breathing is produced by phytoplankton in the ocean? We are studying fast carbon cycling in the shallow ocean with an amazing team of scientists who are marine scientists, analytical chemists, microbiologists, virologists, data scientists, and modelers. It is a wonderful interdisciplinary group! We are funded by an NSF Science and Technology Center, and we are called the “Center for Chemical Currencies of a Microbial Planet (C-CoMP)”.
Our role in C-CoMP is to help measure and quantify small metabolites that are produced by phytoplankton and released to marine heterotrophic bacteria. About 50% of the CO2 in the earth’s atmosphere cycles through the shallow ocean in about 1 week! The phytoplankton photosynthesize the CO2 and release about half of that carbon to bacteria, which are part of a huge ocean microbiome. These bacteria release CO2 back into the atmosphere through respiration, and they form the basis of the marine food chain. This carbon cycle is clearly very important to earth, but very little is known about its dependence on climate change, especially warmer and more acidic oceans.
There are some challenges in measuring these small metabolites in the carbon cycle. First, they are very dilute and need concentration for NMR or mass spectrometry. Second, they are very hard to separate from salt, which is at high concentrations in the ocean. But the salt makes the NMR and MS measurements challenging. We are working on a number of different approaches to improve this situation. Please see the publication list for some articles related to this topic. C-CoMP team members wrote a review article that is a nice place to learn more.