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Bacteria and ocean celebrities

If you were a marine biologist and hoped to learn how to protect coral reefs, whales and other "ocean celebrities," you'd need to study bacteria.

With the help of powerful microscopes and genetic-code readers, researchers are finding more and more big jobs managed by ocean microorganisms. For example, new research shows that bacteria help coral reefs remain healthy.

Scientists studying the chemistry of ocean life also found bacteria that break down the protective coating on the hard and beautiful skeletons of tiny water creatures called diatoms. Once the coatings are eaten away, the diatom skeletons dissolve back into the water. This skeleton recycling process is important for the growth of future generations of diatoms.

Diatoms are an important food source anchovies, which are eaten by sea lions. This snippet of a food web shows one way that bacteria are important for the rest of the ocean world.

Ocean bacteria also make themselves known outside the water. For example, the bacteria Silicibacter pomeroyi generate a chemical that moves from water to air. Once it is in the atmosphere, this chemical compound, called dimethyl sulfide, influences cloud formation.

This article about microbes, molecules and marine ecosystems appears in the 12 March 2004 issue of Science.


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