Although we know that the ocean has the potential to absorb carbon and protect the environment, the process in not well understood. Now, a team of scientists from The Ohio State University has discovered one way that the ocean takes in carbon from the atmosphere - through plankton networks. These networks play an important role in the removal of atmospheric carbon and its depositing into the deep ocean, shedding light on potential ways to improve the health of our oceans.
The findings stem from the Tara Oceans Expedition, which took place over three years and was conducted by a team of 200 experts that examined the sea in order to better understand its inhabitants, from animals and viruses to bacteria.
"We're trying to understand, 'Does carbon in the surface ocean sink to the deep ocean and, if so, how?'" Matthew Sullivan, who participated in the research, said in a press release. "The reason that's important is the oceans help mitigate our carbon footprint on this planet."
The team of researchers used advanced genetic sequencing techniques to analyze ocean life and was able to pinpoint the clusters that are most connected to oceanic carbon depositing.
"It's the first community-wide look at what organisms are good predictors of how carbon moves in the ocean," Sullivan said.
Using cameras to capture images of various kinds of organisms in order to better identify the sinking patterns of plankton, the team was able to combine the results with new observations about the interplay between oceanic life and reveal the phytoplankton that are most involved in carrying carbon to safe resting spots.
One of the surprises of the study was the importance of viruses in this process, specifically those that infect cyanobacteria cells.
"What was really surprising was that only a handful - less than 10 out of more than 5,000 - viruses seem to be specifically linked to carbon export. This means that we can now go after these key players specifically and try to characterize their impact on the ecosystem," he said.
The findings not only further our understanding of how carbon gets removed from the atmosphere and deposited into the ocean, but also our scientific understanding of the ocean's general biological and chemical processes.
The findings were published in the Feb. 10 issue of Nature.