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Cloning the smell of the seaside

A team of scientists from the Schools of Biological Sciences and Environmental Sciences at the University of East Anglia have isolated one of the key genes responsible for production of the characteristic smell of the seaside.

In a study published in the journal Science, Prof Andrew Johnston and colleagues in BIO together with Drs Phil Bond, Gill Malin and Michael Steinke of ENV, isolated a bacterium from the mud in Stiffkey salt-marsh on the North Norfolk coast. They identified and extracted a single gene in the bacterium responsible for the emission of the strong-smelling gas, dimethyl sulphide (DMS).
DMS is a little known but 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 plants. The gas plays an important role in the formation of cloud cover over the oceans, with major effects on climate. Indeed, the phenomenon was used by James Lovelock as a plank to underpin his ‘Gaia hypothesis’.
DMS is also a remarkably effective food marker for ocean-going birds such as shearwaters and petrels. It acts as a homing scent and the birds sniff out their plankton food in the lonely oceans at astonishingly low concentrations.
Scientists have known about DMS for many years, but the genes responsible for its production have never before been identified. The team deduced that the mechanisms involved in DMS production differ markedly from those that had been predicted and discovered that other, wholly unexpected, bacteria could also make that seaside smell.
The full manuscript for this work can be found in the journal Science at:
J.D. Todd, R. Rogers, Y-G. Li, M. Wexler, P.L. Bond, S. Lei, G. Malin, M., Steinke, A.W.B. Johnson, “Structural and regulatory genes required to make the gas dimethyl sulfide in bacteria”, Science, Volume 315, Pages 666-669, (2007).

Doi: 10.1126/science.1135370

Original text