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
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).