Bacteria living in isolation in the deep sea may be gaining useful new genes from a sticky mixture falling like snow through the oceans, said researchers today speaking at the bi-annual meeting of the Society for General Microbiology at the University of East Anglia in the UK.
"The flakes of marine snow are made up of the debris from tiny plants and animals called plankton held together with sugary mucus," says Dr. Carol Turley of the Plymouth Marine Laboratory, UK. "As well as providing food, these clumps also contain active bacteria which can go into a sort of suspended animation in the high pressures and cold temperatures of the deep ocean."
"We have calculated that a thousand billion live bacteria successfully make the trip from the surface to every square meter of the ocean floor every year. They bring different genes to the otherwise isolated bacteria on the deep sea bed, giving the two populations of bacteria a chance to exchange genes,” Dr. Turley said.
The deep ocean covers 60% of the earth's surface. Previously, scientists thought that bacteria surviving at these enormous pressures and depths, in total darkness, were very isolated from most other bacteria occurring at the surface of the oceans.
The new findings suggest that a much wider range of bacteria may exist at the bottom of the deepest seas than previously thought, offering commercial and scientific opportunities.
"Now we have worked out that they may be able to get new genes along with a food source from this marine snow," said Dr. Turley. "We realize that there could be undiscovered species of bacteria capable of working in high pressures or extreme cold which could be very useful in bioengineering or in pharmaceutical products."
Dr. Turley's conference presentation was titled, "C. Manna from heaven: algal-bacterial coupling in the deep-sea."
[Contact: Dr. Carol Turley]