Marine plankton put nitrogen in a fix

6:20pm, August 7, 2001

New genetic analyses of tropical marine microorganisms have revealed that some species of single-celled plankton are converting significant amounts of nitrogen from the air into nutrients, helping to fortify the base of the ocean's food pyramid.

"This [finding] may give scientists a hint of where to look to solve one of the ocean's biggest biogeochemical puzzles," says Douglas G. Capone, an oceanographer at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. There's much more nitrogen capture going on in the oceans than known processes can account for.

By detecting the molecular machinery used by the plankton to create one of the enzymes needed to split nitrogen molecules apart, scientists appear to have discovered a new microbial source of the ocean's nitrogen-bearing nutrients.

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