Scientists Discover New Source of Methanol

Falmouth Woods Hole - PenzanceWOODS HOLE – As one of the most abundant organic compounds on the planet, methanol occurs naturally in the environment as plants release it as they grow and decompose.

It is also found in the ocean, where it is a welcome food source for ravenous microbes that feast on it for energy and growth.

While scientists have long known methanol exists in the ocean, and that certain microbes love to snack on it, they’ve been stymied by one key question: where does it come from?

Researchers at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution have solved this mystery through the discovery of a massive – and previously unaccounted for – source of methanol in the ocean: phytoplankton.

The study found that these microscopic, plant-like organisms, which form the base of the marine food web, have a unique ability to biologically produce methanol in the ocean in quantities that could rival or exceed that which is produced on land.

The results challenge previous thinking on sources of methanol in the ocean, and help fill important knowledge gaps about ocean microbiology and the amount of methanol generated on our planet.

The discovery may also spur research leading to biofuel applications in the future.

One of the most noteworthy aspects of the study, according to researchers, was the amount of methanol plankton were able to produce.

Based on lab measurements, it’s estimated that at least a million tons of the compound is produced in the world’s oceans each year – which could exceed the amount found in the atmosphere.

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