Production of atmospheric sulfur by oceanic plankton: biogeochemical, ecological and evolutionary links

Trends Ecol Evol. 2001 Jun 1;16(6):287-294. doi: 10.1016/s0169-5347(01)02152-8.


Biological production of the volatile compound dimethylsulfide in the ocean is the main natural source of tropospheric sulfur on a global scale, with important consequences for the radiative balance of the Earth. In the late 1980s, a Gaian feedback link between marine phytoplankton and climate through the release of atmospheric sulfur was hypothesized. However, the idea of microalgae producing a substance that could regulate climate has been criticized on the basis of its evolutionary feasibility. Recent advances have shown that volatile sulfur is a result of ecological interactions and transformation processes through planktonic food webs. It is, therefore, not only phytoplankton biomass, taxonomy or activity, but also food-web structure and dynamics that drive the oceanic production of atmospheric sulfur. Accordingly, the viewpoint on the ecological and evolutionary basis of this amazing marine biota-atmosphere link is changing.