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DSSS: The Biological Use of Cadmium in the Ocean


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François M. M. Morel is the Albert G. Blanke Professor of Geosciences at Princeton University. He received a B.S. in Engineering from the University of Grenoble, France, and a Ph.D. in Engineering Science from the California Institute of Technology. He was a faculty member at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology from 1973 to 1994 and joined the Princeton faculty in 1994. The research in his laboratory focuses on the interaction of trace metals and microorganisms in the environment, with particular emphasis on the role of metals in the global cycles of carbon and nitrogen in marine and terrestrial systems. Morel is a member of the National Academy of Sciences and has received numerous scientific prizes.  He directed the Ralph M. Parsons laboratory at MIT from 1991 to 1994, the Princeton Environmental Institute from1998 to 2006 and the NSF-supported Center for Environmental BioInorganic Chemistry from 1998 to 2007.


Cadmium (Cd) is usually considered a toxic element with no biological function.  The distribution of Cd in the oceans suggests, however, that it may be taken up and used by marine phytoplankton.  This suggestion is confirmed by laboratory experiments showing increased growth rates in zinc-limited phytoplankton cultures amended with Cd. The effect is particularly evident under conditions of low CO2 concentrations hinting at a role for Cd as a replacement for Zn in a metalloprotein involved in inorganic carbon acquisition. These observations have led to the discovery of the only known native cadmium enzyme, a carbonic anhydrase, CDCA, that can use either Zn or Cd as its metal center. CDCA which has been fully characterized, plays an important role in the carbon concentrating mechanisms of diatoms, resulting in an unexpected link between the global cycles of Cd and CO2.