Oceanic phytoplankton are a potentially important source of benzenoids

Benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene and xylenes can contribute to hydroxyl reactivity and secondary aerosol formation in the atmosphere. These aromatic hydrocarbons are typically classified as anthropogenic air pollutants, but there is growing evidence of biogenic sources, such as emissions from plants and phytoplankton. Here we use a series of shipborne measurements of the remote marine atmosphere, seawater mesocosm incubation experiments and phytoplankton laboratory cultures to investigate potential marine biogenic sources of these compounds in the oceanic atmosphere. Laboratory culture experiments confirmed marine phytoplankton are a source of benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, xylenes and in mesocosm experiments their sea-air fluxes varied between seawater samples containing differing phytoplankton communities.

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Fig: Time series of BTEX sea-air fluxes: Times series of fluxes in ng m−2 s−1 of benzene, toluene, and the sum of ethylbenzene plus xylenes (yellow bars) and Photosynthetically Active Radiation (PAR) in µmol m−2 s−1 in dark green. Gray areas are plotted to indicate when the ASITs are opened. The absence of bars indicates gaps in the measurements.

These fluxes were of a similar magnitude or greater than the fluxes of dimethyl sulfide, which is considered to be the key reactive organic species in the marine atmosphere. Benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, xylenes fluxes were observed to increase under elevated headspace ozone concentration in the mesocosm incubation experiments, indicating that phytoplankton produce these compounds in response to oxidative stress. Our findings suggest that biogenic sources of these gases may be sufficiently strong to influence atmospheric chemistry in some remote ocean regions.

Rocco, M., Dunne, E., Peltola, M. et al. Oceanic phytoplankton are a potentially important source of benzenoids to the remote marine atmosphere. Commun Earth Environ 2, 175 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1038/s43247-021-00253-0

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