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PRoD #1: Pyrite no pirate plunder, but fancy feast for phytoplankton

10 May 2011

Introducing a new feature at A Word for Science: Press Release of the Day (PRoD)!

Every weekday I’ll pick the weirdest, most interesting, or most-fun-to-write-about science press release I can find and write a short (<250 word) summary. Goals are to be pithy, accurate and timely—I’m doing this to develop the writing habit and improve my craft.

Today’s PRoD was written as a “headline” item for How On Earth, and was read on-air by yours truly.

Image courtesy of Flickr user nickpix2011

If you were a pirate retrieving a chest full of treasure from the ocean floor, you’d be disappointed to discover that it was only the common mineral pyrite, or “fool’s gold.” But to ocean-going bacteria and phytoplankton, pyrite is a priceless plunder.

That’s because pyrite contains iron, which is essential to all life but can be hard to come by in the deep sea.

Pyrite is emitted by hydrothermal vents in the deep ocean. Of course, we’re not talking about fool’s gold doubloons—these particles are tiny, about one thousand times smaller than the diameter of human hair. Scientists had thought that the mineral simply settled to the ocean floor.

But researchers from the University of Delaware and other institutions have shown that these tiny pyrite particles don’t settle. Instead they remain suspended in the water and are dispersed by currents throughout the ocean.

The researchers say it’s like giving the ocean a multivitamin—the iron is released slowly, providing an important nutritional supplement for the tiny organisms like phytoplankton. Phytoplankton are the foundation of the ocean food chain, and play a role in regulating atmospheric levels of oxygen and carbon dioxide. The discovery could shed more light on that process.

The research is published in the May 12 issue of Nature Geoscience.

(211 words)

Read the abstract of the original paper: Hydrothermal vents as a kinetically stable source of iron-sulfide-bearing nanoparticles to the ocean (via Nature Geoscience)

Read the press release: Fool’s gold from the deep is fertilizer for ocean life (NSF via Eurekalert)

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