UEA researchers have found a key gene for producing sulphur molecules. Dimethylsulfoniopropionate (DMSP) are marine molecules which generate more than one billion tonnes annually by the process of marine phytoplankton (microscopic plant-like cells), seaweed and bacteria.

Once marine microorganisms break down DMSP, they release a climate-cooling gas called dimethylsulfide (DMS).

Doctor Jonathan Todd, a professor at the School of Biological Sciences, said: “DMS is a very important gas. “Across the world’s oceans, seas and coasts, tens of millions of tonnes of it are released by microbes that live near plankton and marine plants, including seaweeds and some salt-marsh grasses.”

He also added: “DMS is thought to affect the climate by creating cloud droplets that in turn reduce the amount of sunlight reaching the ocean’s surface.

“These same clouds are vital in the movement of large amounts of sulphur from the oceans to land, making the production of DMSP and DMS a critical step in the global sulphur cycle.”

Marine phytoplankton produces the majority of global DMSP. Genes involved in the production of DMSP in phytoplankton, as well as bacteria, will allow scientists to evaluate which organisms make DMSP in the marine environment. Scientists also aim to discover whether this influential molecule could affect future environmental changes, such as the warming of the oceans due to climate change.

Dr Todd said: “The identification of the DMSP synthesis genes in marine bacteria and phytoplankton allows us to evaluate for the first time which organisms produce DMSP in the environment.”

PhD student, Beth Williams, was a major contributor to the research and found the discovery of the evolutionary link between bacterial and phytoplankton DSYB both surprising and interesting, as it indicated that the ability to synthesise DMSP through this pathway originated in bacteria.