Dominant Microorganisms of the Upper Ocean: Form and Function, Spatial Distribution and Photoregulation of Biochemical Processes

  • John McNeill Sieburth
Part of the NATO Conference Series book series (NATOCS, volume 17)


The microorganisms that account for 90% of the biomass in the upper layer of the open sea are so small they pass through a 10 µm porosity plankton net, but are so numerous that a 3 or 30 ml sample yields a statistically significant count of the bacteria and flagellates, respectively. The bacterial population contains not only the organotrophs responsible for organic matter decomposition and mineralization, but conspicuous and important populations of both phototrophic and chemotrophic autotrophs as well as an undetermined population of lysotrophic bacteria which prey upon other bacteria. These procaryotic cells lacking membrane-bound organelles interact with the eucaryotic (true) cells of the protists (unicellular microorganisms with organelles) that are equally divided between chloroplast-containing phototrophic flagellates and colorless phagotrophic (particle eating) flagellates.

These dominant microorganisms have two major distributions, as plankters free in the water and as epibionts associated with the aggregated seston that makes up marine snow. Their physical state as plankters or as epibionts has a major effect on their spatial distribution and, therefore, their activity and survival in clear oceanic waters during the photoperiod. Near ultra-violet and the shorter visible wavelengths of light which penetrate to depths exceeding 30 m apparently inhibit bacterial processes by photodenaturing bacterial enzymes at intensities far below that which kills the bacteria by denaturing DNA and RNA. Light sensitive bacteria include not only the organotrophs responsible for organic matter decay but the chemotrophs that oxidize the terminal products of decay, ammonia and methane. Therefore, the daily chemical cycles of CO2, O2, H2, CH4, and labile components of organic matter which are due, to a greater or lesser degree, to microbiological processes, are in turn controlled by the solar cycle directly through photoinhibition and phototoxicity and indirectly through vertical mixing caused by wind-drive turbulence and heat-driven convection that brings the less dense microbiota into the higher intensity light near the surface.


Gulf Stream Nitrify Bacterium Phototrophic Bacterium Marine Snow Labile Component 
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Copyright information

© Plenum Press, New York 1986

Authors and Affiliations

  • John McNeill Sieburth
    • 1
  1. 1.Graduate School of OceanographyUniversity of Rhode Island Bay CampusNarragansettUSA

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