How Norfolk’s coastal mud could hold the key to climate change

Stiffkey marshes and beach on a sunny April morning. Picture: Martin Sizeland

Stiffkey marshes and beach on a sunny April morning. Picture: Martin Sizeland - Credit: Martin Sizeland

Bacteria found in environments such as Norfolk's Cley and Stiffkey marshes could hold the key to slowing climate change, new research suggests.

University of East Anglia (UEA) researchers have found that muddy marshes, estuaries and coastal sediment produce one of the Earth's most abundant climate cooling gases, called Dimethylsulfoniopropionate (DMSP).

Lead researcher Professor Jonathan Todd, from UEA's School of Biological Sciences, said: "It is important because it affects atmospheric chemistry and potentially climate - by increasing cloud droplets that in turn, reduce the amount of sunlight reaching the ocean's surface.

"Across the world's oceans, seas and coasts, tens of millions of tonnes of DMS are released annually by microbes that live in these environments."

DMSP is an important nutrient in marine environments with billions of tonnes produced annually by marine phytoplankton (microscopic plant-like cells), seaweed, corals and bacteria.

When these microorganisms break down the bacteria, they release a climate-cooling gas called dimethylsulfide (DMS), which also gives the seaside its characteristic smell.

Prof Todd added: "These same clouds are vital in the movement of large amounts of sulphur from the oceans to land, making the production of DMSP and DMS a critical step in the global sulphur cycle."

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Until recently, it was thought that DMSP was mainly produced in the ocean's surface waters by algae, but the research reveals that the bacteria is produced in coastal sediment.

The research team studied salty sediment from the north Norfolk coast at the Stiffkey and Cley salt marches.

Dr Beth Williams, also from UEA's School of Biological Sciences, said: "Our findings could mean that scientists have been significantly underestimating both the production of this molecule and the effect it is having in the environment."

The study was carried out in collaboration with researchers at the Ocean University of China, the University of Auckland, Australia, and Herriot Watt University in Edinburgh and the results have been published in the journal Nature Microbiology.

Sir David Attenborough last week named the Cley Marshes as "one of the great places in Britain to see wildlife".

The Norfolk Wildlife Trust's best-known nature reserve, the Cley Marshes was bought in 1926, the same year Sir David was born.