Sutherland*, KM, SD Wankel and CM Hansel. 2020. The ocean oxygen budget revisited: New consideration of dark extracellular superoxide production. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 117:3433-3439. doi:10.1073/pnas.1912313117.
Date Published:
February 1, 2020

The balance between sources and sinks of molecular oxygen in the oceans has greatly impacted the composition of Earth’s atmosphere since the evolution of oxygenic photosynthesis, thereby exerting key influence on Earth’s climate and the redox state of (sub)surface Earth. The canonical source and sink terms of the marine oxygen budget include photosynthesis, respiration, photorespiration, the Mehler reaction, and other smaller terms. However, recent advances in understanding cryptic oxygen cycling, namely the ubiquitous one-electron reduction of O2 to superoxide by microorganisms outside the cell, remains unexplored as a potential player in global oxygen dynamics. Here we show that dark extracellular superoxide production by marine microbes represents a previously unconsidered global oxygen flux and sink comparable in magnitude to other key terms. We estimate that extracellular superoxide production represents a gross oxygen sink comprising about a third of marine gross oxygen production, and a net oxygen sink amounting to 15 to 50% of that. We further demonstrate that this total marine dark extracellular superoxide flux is consistent with concentrations of superoxide in marine environments. These findings underscore prolific marine sources of reactive oxygen species and a complex and dynamic oxygen cycle in which oxygen consumption and corresponding carbon oxidation are not necessarily confined to cell membranes or exclusively related to respiration. This revised model of the marine oxygen cycle will ultimately allow for greater reconciliation among estimates of primary production and respiration and a greater mechanistic understanding of redox cycling in the ocean.