Cryptic Links in the Ocean

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Science  03 Dec 2010:
Vol. 330, Issue 6009, pp. 1326-1327
DOI: 10.1126/science.1198400

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Oxygen depletion in the ocean water column, in stratified basins such as the Santa Barbara and Cariaco basins, and in enclosed anoxic oceans such as the Black Sea provide vivid examples of a type of marine habitat where multicellular life gradually disappears with depth as oxygen is consumed by respiration and not replenished. Only bacteria and archaea with anaerobic metabolisms persist, controlling the microbial cycling of nitrogen, sulfur, metals, and carbon. Genuine fondness for these environments and their anaerobic microbial inhabitants, although possibly an acquired taste, is widespread among marine microbiologists and geochemists who are tracing the path of key elements and the role of microbes in the ocean's biogeochemical economy. On page 1375 of this issue, Canfield et al. (1) analyze the microbial cycling of nitrogen and sulfur in the oxygen minimum zone offshore of northern Chile. They show that our working hypotheses on microbial interactions and processes of stratified marine water columns have overlooked a critical component: the contribution of the “cryptic” microbial sulfur cycle.