The microbiology of seawater

The world's oceans cover some 70 per cent of the Earth's surface and have a fairly constant salt content of 3.5 per cent (w/v). The depth to which light can penetrate varies, but is limited to the first 100 metres or so. A world of permanent darkness exists at greater depths, however in spite of the absence of photosynthesis, oxygen is often still present. This is because the generally low levels of mineral nutrients in seawater limit the amount of primary production, and therefore heterotrophic activity. At extreme depths, however, anoxic conditions prevail.

Compared to freshwater habitats, marine ecosystems show much less variability in both temperature and pH, although there are exceptions to this general rule. A more pertinent issue in marine environments is that of pressure; this increases progressively in deeper waters, and at 1000 metres reaches around 100 times normal atmospheric pressure. Concomitant with this increase in pressure is a decrease in temperature and nutrients. Surprisingly, however, certain members of the Archaea have been isolated even from these extreme conditions.

In contrast to terrestrial ecosystems, where plants are responsible for most of the energy fixation via photosynthesis, marine primary production is largely micro-bial, in the shape of members of the phytoplankton. As we have seen, such forms are restricted to those zones where light is able to penetrate. Also found here may be protozoans and fungi that feed on the phytoplankton. Because of the high salt concentration of seawater, the bacteria that are typically found in such environments

Phytoplankton is a collective term used to describe the unicellular photosynthesisers, which include cyanobacteria, dinoflagellates, diatoms and single-celled algae.

differ from those in freshwater. In the last decade or so, the presence of ultramicrobacteria has been detected in marine ecosystems at relatively high densities; these are around one-tenth of the size of 'normal' bacteria. Marine bacteria are of necessity halophilic. Anaerobic decomposing bacteria inhabit the benthic zone, carrying out reactions similar to those that occur in freshwater sediments, whilst the profundal zone is largely free of microbial life.

Ultramicrobacteria are bacteria that are much smaller than normal forms, and can pass through a 0.22 ^m filter. They may represent a response to reduced nutrient conditions.

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