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Group planning by bacteria may affect Earth’s climate

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The type of consensus decision-making carried on at the Occupy Wall Street protest may go back almost to the origin of life on Earth. Scientists at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution have discovered that bacteria make group decisions as well.

Not only that, but these collective decisions appear to influence how much carbon is taken out of the planet’s atmosphere by ocean bacteria and thereby affect the global climate.

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According to a study reported by Science Daily, “In the ocean, bacteria coalesce on tiny particles of carbon-rich detritus sinking through the depths.” These bacteria send out chemical signals that, in effect, say, “Hey! Is there anybody else out there?” — and if enough responses come back, the entire group starts secreting enzymes that break up the carbon-containing molecules into handy snack-sized chunks.

This is a good deal for the bacteria, but it may result in the carbon being released back into the atmosphere in the form of carbon dioxide rather than sinking to the bottom of the ocean — and that, in turn, may promote global warming.

The role played by oceanic bacteria in the atmospheric carbon cycle has been known for some time, but the importance of collective decision-making has not previously been recognized.

“So microscopic bacteria buffer the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere through their ‘conversations,’ ” one of the scientists involved in the study commented. “I think it’s amazing that there are a near- infinite number of these conversations going on in the ocean right now, and they are affecting Earth’s carbon cycle.”

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Photo from Wikimedia Commons, provided by the National Archives and Records Administration.


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