Environment Scientists discover how sand ‘holds its breath’

Scientists discover how sand ‘holds its breath’

Monash University researchers have discovered how sand ‘holds its breath’ – and the discovery may have implications for the biofuels industry.

The world leading research conducted on Melbourne’s very own Middle Park beach has revealed how sand micro-algae called ‘diatoms’ survive in harsh conditions.

Sand mixes continuously so these organisms get light and air one minute, but are buried with no oxygen the next.

Understanding the mechanism that lets these algae survive under these conditions has astonishing implications and potential uses in the biofuels industry.

That’s according to lead authors Associate Professor Perran Cook and PhD student Michael Bourke, from the Water Studies Centre, School of Chemistry.

“Our work has found that [the algae] ferment, like yeast ferments sugar to alcohol,” said Associate Professor Cook.

“In this case the products are hydrogen and ‘fats’, for example oleate, which is a component of olive oil,” said Professor Cook.

“The finding that hydrogen is a by-product of this metabolism has important implications for the types of bacteria present in the sediment,” he said.

“It is well known that bacteria in the sediment can ‘eat’ hydrogen, however, these hydrogen-eating bacteria may be more common than we previously thought.”

The study showing fermentation as the dominant metabolic pathway for these algae is the first to document the mechanism in an environmental setting.

You can read more about the team’s findings here. Story credit: Monash University newsroom.

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