Feb 1, 2007
Bottled seaside air! It almost sounds like a scam from the Victorian era when the bracing “ozone” of fresh air at the British seaside was said to cure all kinds of ailments and led to a boom in seaside resorts and continues to ebb and flow.
But, it’s not a scam. Researchers at the University of East Anglia have been plucking bacteria from the North Norfolk coast at a little village called Stiffkey (pronounced Stoo-Kee) and fermenting them to reproduce the marshy smell of the seaside in the laboratory.
Andrew Johnston and his team isolated the bacterium from the mud at Stiffkey saltmarsh and have identified the single gene responsible for the emission of the strong-smelling gas, dimethyl sulfide (DMS).
“On bracing childhood visits to the seaside we were always told to “breathe in that ozone, it’s good for you’,” said Prof Johnston. “But we were misled, twice over,” he adds, “First, that distinctive smell is not ozone [a highly toxic allotrope of oxygen], it is dimethyl sulfide. And secondly, inhaling it is not necessarily good for you.”
DMS is a little known but important gas. Across the world’s oceans, seas and coasts, tens of millions of tonnes are released by microbes that live near plankton and marine plants, including seaweeds and some salt-marsh plants. The gas plays an important role in the formation of cloud cover over the oceans, with major effects on climate.
Intriguingly, DMS acts as a homing scent for seabirds, almost like the odour of Brussels sprouts at a festive dinner table – it helps birds sniff out food in the lonely oceans, even at astonishingly low concentrations. Understanding the role of microbes in producing this key chemical is important in understanding a whole range of ecosystems.
The discovery adds to the diverse list of Stiffkey’s claims to fame. The small coastal village is renowned for its ‘Stewkey Blue’ cockles and was also the home of Henry Williamson, author of “Tarka the Otter”. It’s also known for its infamous rector, Reverend Harold Davidson, who was defrocked in 1932 after allegedly “cavorting with” London prostitutes. The pronunciation of the village’s name itself is even controversial with the older locals preferring the archaic Stoo-Kee, while the incomers often prefer the posher sounding and phonetic Stiff-Key. (Incidentally, my photograph of beachhuts at the head of this article was taken along the coast at Wells-next-the-Sea.