Biologists unravel part of the mystery behind disappearance of shell material
Chitin, the Earths second-most abundant biological material, is a major component in the flurry of skeletal debris discarded daily by crustacean creatures in the worlds oceans. If left undisturbed, this tough insoluble material, a cousin to cellulose, would pile up on the oceans floor and wreak havoc with marine ecosystems. Fortunately, armies of bacteria act as chitins cleanup crew, and two Johns Hopkins University biologists have made a key discovery about how and when these microscopic soldiers launch their search-and-devour missions.
Writing in the Online Early Edition of "Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences" for the week of Dec. 29, 2003, Xibing Li and Saul Roseman reported that they had found a genetic master switch that reacts to the presence of nearby chitin and sets off a biological chain reaction, causing the bacterial feast to begin. Understanding this process is important because 1011 tons of chitin (pronounced "KITE-in") are dumped annually in the oceans, largely by tiny sea animals called copepods, which shed their shells as they grow. "If nothing happened to this debris, wed be up to our eyeballs in chitin, and the carbon and nitrogen cycle upon which marine life depends would be gone within 50 to 75 years," said Roseman, a professor of biology in the Kreiger School of Arts and Sciences at Johns Hopkins.
Phil Sneiderman | EurekAlert!
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