There seems no room for new bacteria on sand grains

Bacteria on the sand on the ocean floor do not change between the seasons

July 20, 2021

Whether summer or winter, midnight sun or polar night – the sand on the ocean floor is always inhabited by the same bacteria. Although the microbial communities differ between different ocean regions, they do not change between the seasons. Presumably, there is simply no room for change. Researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Marine Microbiology in Bremen, Germany, now describe this phenomenon in a new study.

In summer, the sun never sets on Spitsbergen; in winter, it never makes it above the horizon. Nevertheless, the bacterial community on the sandy bottom of the sea does not change.

A relaxing vacation on the beach frees us from many of the worries of everyday life. But the sand not only cleans the head and soul of vacationers – it also cleans the seawater. Coastal sands are so-called biocatalytic filters. Hundreds of thousands of bacteria live on each grain of sand, and they process, for example, nitrogen and carbon from the seawater that flows through the sands. In this way, the ­sands act ­like ­giant, ­purifying ­filters. Much of what the seawater ­washes ­into the ­ground does not come ­out­ again.

A study by researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Marine Microbiology in Bremen, Germany, now shows that the bacteria living on the sand are very different from the ones in seawater. And while the bacterial community in the water is constantly changing and adapting with the changing seasons, the sand bacteria are rather indifferent to spring, summer, fall and winter.

Stable in number and type

There is plenty of sand on the North Sea island of Helgoland. And yet, on the sand-covered seabed, living space for new bacterial species is very limited.

The team led by Katrin Knittel and Sebastian Miksch from the Max Planck Institute in Bremen studied the sand bacteria in the North Sea off Helgoland and in the Arctic near Spitsbergen, where there is no primary production at all during the polar night. “Both the number and the type of bacteria were surprisingly stable,” reports Miksch, who conducted the study as part of his doctoral thesis. “Actinobacteria of the orders Actinomarinales and Microtrichales were particularly numerous and also particularly active. They probably play a prominent role in the turnover of organic material in these coastal areas.” While the respective proportions of these two groups differ significantly between the studied sites in Helgoland and Svalbard, in themselves they hardly change.

All booked on the sand grain

“We were very surprised to see such a different pattern in the seafloor than in the water where microbial communities show a pronounced seasonality,” Katrin Knittel explains. The spots on the sand grains that are well-protected from friction and predators are densely populated with bacteria while exposed spots show a low population density. The researchers therefore suspect that there is simply no habitable space for new, different inhabitants. “All the apartments are already occupied, so to speak. New tenants who could change the community simply can't find a sheltered place – or at least not in large numbers,” Knittel adds.

But do bacteria really not care about the season as well as polar night and day? “We now want to go a step further, and look inside the bacteria. The bacteria remain the same, but over the seasons, perhaps the activity of different enzymes changes because different food arrives at the bottom.”

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