Remember that train in the old western with the villain stoking the fires in the engine room as the locomotive heads towards the cliff. Well, in a sense, that may be just what’s on track for the world’s oceans due to a bizarre response to climate change exhibited by a key group of ocean bacteria known as Trichodesmium.
Tricho, as they are known to researchers are one of the few organisms in the ocean that can fix atmospheric nitrogen gas and thus make it available to other living beings, making them crucial to every form of ocean life that requires nitrogen to survive, from Algae to Orcas.
But a recent study by reasearchers at USC and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) found that increased carbon dioxide in ocean water due to climate change could eventually send Tricho into unbridled reproductive overdrive consuming all the available resources they, and most life in the ocean need to survive.
By breeding hundreds of generations of the bacteria over the course of nearly five years in the high-carbon dioxide ocean conditions predicted for the year 2100, researchers found that the Tricho first grew more rapidly and produced more nitrogen. Then, inexplicably, the bacteria failed to return to its regular growth and consumption rate even when returned to normal conditions.
This apparently irreversible biological adaptation to climate change was obviously pretty alarming for the biologists. “Losing the ability to regulate your growth rate is not a healthy thing,” said USC professor David Hutchins, who many feel deserves a genius grant for his work in understatement. “The last thing you want is to be stuck with high growth rates when there aren’t enough nutrients to go around. It’s a losing strategy in the struggle to survive.“