Vitamin Deserts Limit Marine Life

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Mother Earth hasn’t been making her oceans take their vitamins.

Oceanographers found that some expanses of the ocean lack B vitamins, like riboflavin, thiamine and niacin. A lack of B vitamins makes those regions of the ocean inhospitable deserts as far as phytoplankton are concerned. Phytoplankton are single-celled organisms that use energy from the sun and support many of the ocean’s food webs, hence no plankton means no larger marine life.

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Lack of B vitamins can lead to fatal conditions in humans, and lack of the vitamins seriously hinders plankton’s survival as well. Phytoplankton need B vitamins to carry on life processes, such as carbohydrate metabolism and amino acid synthesis, because the vitamins assist enzymes to speed up chemical processes.

Oceanographers have found that fluctuations in B vitamins have an effect on plankton. They had hypothesized that vitamin deserts existed, but had never found one. A team of biologists from the Universities of Hawaii and Southern California first condensed sea water and then used a mass spectrometer to look for signs of B vitamins. They found that some areas of the oceans were lacking these essential parts of a phytoplankton’s diet.

“This is another twist to what limits life in the ocean,” said Sergio Sañudo-Wilhelmy, professor of biological and earth sciences at the University of Southern California and lead author of the paper which was published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, in a press release.

The presence and movement of B vitamins in the ocean may be another piece in the puzzle to understanding what causes plankton blooms. A study published in Science presented evidence that blooms may be fueled by eddies holding phytoplankton in shallow water where the organisms can thrive. 

Thriving plankton lead to thriving fisheries and bountiful catches. Some would like to put the plankton to work on a bigger task. Phytoplankton, like plants, pull in carbon dioxide during respiration. Massive phytoplankton blooms pull in tremendous quantities of carbon dioxide.

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Triggering one of these blooms by sprinkling iron on the ocean has been proposed as a quick fix to climate change. Iron seeding experiments’ results have been hit or miss. The failure of some of these may have been related to the B vitamin deserts. Without B vitamins, phytoplankton don’t respond to iron seeding, according to oceanographers at the University of Granada.

Ocean seeding has been labeled by some as a biological Band-Aid which won’t reduce the causes of climate change. Other detractors mention examples of the folly that ensues from tinkering with nature, such as the disastrous introduction of cane toads to Australia or the spread of kudzu over the southern United States.

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IMAGE: A phytoplankton bloom (NASA, Wikimedia Commons)

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