Aussie Researchers Discover Tiny ‘Secret Weapon’ In The Fight Against Climate Change

Jul 01, 2022by Olivia - F&F

In Sydney, a group of researchers have discovered a tiny marine organism that absorbs and traps carbon! Let’s see how this carbon-capturing microbe could become a ‘secret weapon’ in the fight against climate change.

Prorocentrum Cf Balticum MucosphereProrocentrum Cf Balticum Mucosphere

Image: Larsson et al. (2022) / Dr. Michaela E. Larsson & Cohen et al. (2022) / Larsson et al. 2022 / Dr. Michaela E. Larsson.

This Tiny Marine Organism Attracts & Traps Carbon-Rich Microbes

There’s a new carbon-capturing microbe in town, and its name is Prorocentrum cf. balticum!  This unusual ocean predator was discovered by a team of researchers at the University of Technology Sydney (UTS), and written about in a study published in Nature Communications.  

So, what’s unusual about this microbe? Essentially, Prorocentrum cf. balticum can attract, immobilise and ‘capture’ its prey — like a Venus flytrap! Lead author of the study, Dr Michaela Larsonn, said “most terrestrial plants use nutrients from the soil to grow, but some, like the Venus flytrap, gain additional nutrients by catching and consuming insects”. Prorocentrum cf. balticum — is a mixotroph, so is also able to eat other microbes for a concentrated hit of nutrients, like taking a multivitamin.

Tiny Marine OrganismTiny Marine Organism

Image: Larsson et al. (2022) / Glynn Gorick.

This Microbe Isn’t An Animal Or A Plant — So, What Is It?

Prorocentrum cf. balticum can consume other organisms like an animal, but also photosynthesise like a plant. It isn’t a bacterium, either. So, what exactly is it? This unusual microbe is a ‘protist’. Protists don’t technically fit into the animal, plant, or fungi kingdom. Protists are eukaryotes, which mean that they have a distinct nucleus and organelles inside their cells. 

How does Prorocentrum cf. balticum actually traps and stores carbon? It starts with the creation of the “mucosphere”. Sounds gross, right? It’s actually a three-dimensional, carbon-rich structure which acts like a spider’s web. The microbe’s mucosphere emits chemicals which work to attract nearby prey. Once enough prey is trapped to feast on, the microbe abandons the mucosphere — where it sinks to the bottom of the ocean, along with all of the trapped carbon!

Underwater Ocean FloorUnderwater Ocean Floor

Image: Jeremy Bishop / Canva

How Can This Microbe Help To Combat Climate Change?

As it turns out, this little microbe could be a secret weapon in the fight against climate change! Even as our oceans become warmer and more acidic, it’s suggested that Prorocentrum cf. balticum can still absorb carbon naturally. The microbe has the potential to sink 0.02-0.15 gigatons of carbon each year!

“Having the capacity to acquire nutrients in different ways means this microbe can occupy parts of the ocean devoid of dissolved nutrients and therefore unsuitable for most phytoplankton,” said Dr Larsonn. 

Essentially, as the impacts of climate change continue to wreak havoc on our oceans, this microbe could help to maintain oceanic health — even well into the future. “This could be a game changer in the marine environment,” said Dr Larsonn.

Coral Reef FishCoral Reef Fish

Image: Samson Bush / Canva

What’s Next For The Tiny, Carbon-Capturing Microbe?

According to the study’s senior author, Professor Martina Doblin, “this is an entirely new species, never before described in this amount of detail”. There’s a lot that is still unknown, but, “the implication is that there’s perhaps greater potential for the ocean to capture more carbon naturally through this process, in places that weren’t thought to be potential carbon sequestration locations”.

So, in the same way that we plant forests to sequester carbon, could we cultivate this microbe to achieve a greater climate-cooling impact? Well, Professor Doblin said that “the next step before assessing the feasibility of large-scale cultivation is to gauge the proportion of the carbon-rich exopolymers resistant to bacteria breakdown, and determine the sinking velocity of discarded mucospheres”.

The brand new discovery of Prorocentrum cf. balticum marks a new addition to the growing collection of nature-based solutions that enhance carbon capture in the ocean! We’re excited to see what the future holds for this tiny, carbon-capturing microbe. 

To read about more exciting oceanic discoveries, check out our Eco News category and the blogs below!

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