Diatoms – those tiny ocean-dwelling photosynthesisers that produce a fifth of the planet’s oxygen each year – may not gulp down more carbon dioxide more enthusiastically as greenhouse gas levels in the atmosphere continue to rise.
Instead, they may switch off and use the gas more efficiently. If so, the consequences for the rest of the planet could be uncomfortable.
Climate scientists who try to model the machinery of the atmosphere have always banked on a “fertilisation effect” from at least some of the extra CO2 pumped into the atmosphere by the human burning of fossil fuels and the clearance of the forests. They may no longer be able to do so.
The discovery – reported in Nature Climate Change – is based on laboratory experiments with one single-celled phytoplankton species called Thalassiosira pseudonana and meticulous study of its genetic mechanisms.
It may not be a sure guide to what actually happens in the crowded, complex world of climate change later this century. But all phytoplankton are survivors of the same evolutionary history, and many of them are known to be equipped with carbon-concentrating mechanisms to make the most of the available carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. So what happens to one could be true for all.
Gwenn Hennon, an oceanographer at the University of Washington in Seattle, US, and colleagues decided to work out what happened to their laboratory diatoms in atmospheres in which carbon dioxide levels continued to rise to 800 parts per million later this century.
Right now, the concentration is almost 400 parts per million, but for most of human history until the invention of the internal combustion engine, and the exploitation of fossil fuels, it has been around 280 parts per million. A third of the emissions from factory chimneys and motor exhausts is absorbed by living things in the oceans, starting with diatoms and other phytoplankton.
The Seattle team found that while many photosynthesisers do grow faster with more CO2, the oceanic diatoms did not: they responded vigorously at first, but as long as there was a normal supply of other nutrients, over 15 generations, they slowed down.
“There are certain genes that respond right away to a change in CO2, but the change in the metabolism doesn’t actually happen until you give the diatoms some time to acclimate,” said Hennon, a doctoral student. “Instead of using that energy from the CO2 to grow faster, they just stopped harvesting as much energy from light through photosynthesis and carried out less respiration.”
Studies like this are an illustration of the intricacy and complexity of climate science. How the living world responds to greater human emissions of carbon dioxide from fossil fuels is key to all models of future climates, but researchers in general have expected the plant world to respond by consuming more, and slowing the rate of change overall.
There is some evidence that this is happening. Half of all the anthropogenic or human-made CO2 has been gulped down in the form of more lusty growth by vegetation, but this “negative feedback” effect has been countered by other factors: more greenery in the Arctic, for instance, could accelerate global warming, and anyway, as plants grow more vigorously, so do plant predators.
And increasingly, climate scientists have begun to realise that although the responses of theforests and arid lands are vital factors, the big players could be the creatures hardly anyone ever sees: the fungi and tiny fauna in the soil beneath the trees, and of course the phytoplankton in the oceans.
The Seattle calculation is that the evolutionary history of the diatoms explains the carbon-concentrating mechanisms in their genetic inheritance. Microbes are life’s foundation, and single-celled creatures evolved over three billion years when CO2 levels in the atmosphere were at colossal concentrations.
The diatoms and their ancestors were the creatures that created the oxygen atmosphere in which all other complex living things evolved. An enzyme evolved to help the first microbes cope with high levels of CO2, and has survived for billions of years.
“There hasn’t been another enzyme to replace it since, so plants and algae that photosynthesise have an enzyme that functions better at a higher CO2 level than we currently have,” Hennon said.
“When the CO2 remains high for a long time, however, the diatoms make a more radical metabolic shift. They decrease photosynthesis and respiration to balance the cell’s energy budget. In other words, the diatoms use less energy to grow at the same rate.”