UMD Finding May Hold Key to Gaia Hypothesis

Discovery ultimately could lead to better climate understanding and prediction

COLLEGE PARK, Md. – Is Earth really a sort of giant living organism as the Gaia hypothesis predicts? A new discovery made at the University of Maryland may provide a key to answering this question. This sulfur key could allow scientists to unlock heretofore hidden interactions between ocean organisms, atmosphere, and land -- interactions that might provide evidence supporting this famous theory.

The Gaia hypothesis -- first articulated by James Lovelock and Lynn Margulis in the 1970s -- holds that Earth's physical and biological processes are inextricably connected to form a self-regulating, essentially sentient, system. Proponents of this hypothesis say it is more relevant than ever in light of increasing concerns about global climate change.

One of the early predictions of this hypothesis was that there should be a sulfur compound made by organisms in the oceans that was stable enough against oxidation in water to allow its transfer to the air. Either the sulfur compound itself, or its atmospheric oxidation product, would have to return sulfur from the sea to the land surfaces. The most likely candidate for this role was deemed to be dimethyl sulfide.

Newly published work done at the University of Maryland by first author Harry Oduro, together with UMD geochemist James Farquhar and marine biologist Kathryn Van Alstyne of Western Washington University, provides a tool for tracing and measuring the movement of sulfur through ocean organisms, the atmosphere and the land in ways that may help prove or disprove the controversial Gaia theory. Their study appears in this week’s Online Early Edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2012/05/11/1117691109.full.pdf+html?sid=dab31b91-d6f6-484f-bafd-2be13b1722b8

According to Oduro and his colleagues, this work presents the first direct measurements of the isotopic composition of dimethylsulfide and of its precursor dimethylsulfoniopropionate. These measurements reveal differences in the isotope ratios of these two sulfur compounds that are produced by macroalga and phytoplankton. These measurements (1) are linked to the compounds’ metabolism by these ocean organisms and (2) carry implications for tracking dimethylsulfide emissions from the ocean to the atmosphere. Sulfur, the tenth most abundant element in the universe, is part of many inorganic and organic compounds. Sulfur cycles sulfur through the land, atmosphere and living things and plays critical roles in both climate and in the health of organisms and ecosystems. 

“Dimethylsulfide emissions play a role in climate regulation through transformation to aerosols that are thought to influence the earth’s radiation balance,” says Oduro, who conducted the research while completing a Ph.D. in geology & earth system sciences at the University of Maryland and now is a postdoctoral fellow at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “We show that differences in isotopic composition of dimethylsulfide may vary in ways that will help us to refine estimates of its emission into the atmosphere and of its cycling in the oceans.”

As with many other chemical elements, sulfur consists of different isotopes. All isotopes of an element are characterized by having the same number of electrons and protons but different numbers of neutrons. Therefore, isotopes of an element are characterized by identical chemical properties, but different mass and nuclear properties. As a result, it can be possible for scientists to use unique combinations of an element’s radioactive isotopes as isotopic signatures through which compounds with that element can be traced. 

"What Harry did in this research was to devise a way to isolate and measure the sulfur isotopic composition of these two sulfur compounds," says Farquhar, a professor in the University of Maryland's department of geology. "This was a very difficult measurement to do right, and his measurements revealed an unexpected variability in an isotopic signal that appears to be related to the way the sulfur is metabolized.

"Harry's work establishes that we should expect to see variability in the sulfur isotope signatures of these compounds in the oceans under different environmental conditions and for different organisms.  I think this will ultimately be very important for using isotopes to trace the cycling of these compounds in the surface oceans as well as the flux of dimethylsulfide to the atmosphere. The ability to do this could help us answer important climate questions, and ultimately better predict climate changes. And it may even help us to better trace connections between dimethylsulfide emissions and sulfate aerosols, ultimately testing a coupling in the Gaia hypothesis," Farquhar says.

CONTACTS:

Lee Tune, University of Maryland, University Communications 301-405-4679, ltune@umd.edu

Harry Oduro MIT Postdoctoral Fellow (617)-324-3946  Hoduro@mit.edu

James Farquhar Professor Department of Geology University of Maryland (301) 405-5043 jfarquha@essic.umd.edu

About the University of Maryland

The University of Maryland is the state's flagship university and one of the nation's preeminent public research universities. Ranked No. 17 among public universities by U.S. News & World Report, it has 30 academic programs in the U.S News Top 10 and 71 in the Top 25. The Institute of Higher Education (Jiao Tong University, Shanghai), which ranks the world's top universities based on research, puts Maryland at No. 38 in the world and No. 13 among U.S. public universities. For the fourth consecutive year, the University of Maryland ranked in the top 10 of Kiplinger's Personal Finance magazine's list of Best Values in Public Colleges for 2011-12.The university has produced six Nobel laureates, seven Pulitzer Prize winners, more than 40 members of the national academies and scores of Fulbright scholars.  The university is recognized for its diversity, with underrepresented students comprising one-third of the student population. For more information about the University of Maryland, visit www.umd.edu.

About Us

The University of Maryland is the state's flagship university and one of the nation's preeminent public research universities. Ranked No. 18 among public universities by U.S. News & World Report, it has 32 academic programs in the U.S News Top 10 and 73 in the Top 25. The university is recognized for its diversity, with underrepresented students comprising one-third of the student population. emailum@umd.edu.

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