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300,000 genes under the sea: Using genomic tools to probe microbes in the deep ocean

A ship in the Azores will be used by to drill sediments for analysis of gene activity on the subsurface of the ocean.  Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution experts did the analysis.
A ship in the Azores will be used by to drill sediments for analysis of gene activity on the subsurface of the ocean. Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution experts did the analysis. Joseph Russell /University of Delaware

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Deep within the ocean’s sediments dwell half of the microorganisms on Earth. Little has been known, however, about what these bacteria and fungi are up to. It’s a question that matters in understanding global climate change, because there are lots of nutrients deep in the open floor — including carbon. If those microbial deep sea inhabitants are dormant, carbon and other nutrients are likely to stay put. If they are alive and active, they may be cycling that stuff back into the ocean.

Now, researchers have a clue. Scientists from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and the University of Delaware analyzed six coffee-cup-sized cores collected from sediments off the coast of Peru and found many of the active genes were involved in how cells multiply, suggesting that microbial cells are active.

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