DMS in the odor landscape of the sea
Dimethyl Sulfide or DMS is present throughout the ocean(1). It’s an important odor component of many fish and shellfish, including clams, mussels, oysters, scallops, crabs and shrimp(2-9). Where does it come from? Usually from the marine plants they feed on.
Many species of plants and algae produce DMS, but not all species produce significant amounts of it. Nearly all of these are marine, and they tend to be in closely related groups with other DMS-producers, including Chlorophyte (green) seaweeds, the Dinophyceae in the dinoflagellates, and some members of the Chrysophyceae and the Bacillariophyceae (two classes of diatoms). Other large groups, like cyanobacteria and freshwater algae, tend not to produce DMS. (10,11)
Why do these groups produce DMS? In algae, most researchers believe a related chemical, DMSP, is used by the algae for osmoregulation- by ensuring the ion concentration inside their cells stays fairly close to the salinity in the seawater outside, they prevent osmotic shock. Otherwise, after a sudden exposure to fresh water (rain at the sea surface, for instance) cells could swell up and explode. In vascular plants, like marsh grasses and sugar cane, it’s not clear what DMS is used for. (12,13)
Freshly harvested shellfish can smell like DMS because DMSP has accumulated in their tissue from the algae in their diet. Some animals, including giant Tridacna clams and the intertidal flatworm Convoluta roscoffensis, harbor symbiotic algae in their tissues, which produce DMSP; this may not be important to their symbioses, but for Tridacna, the high DMS levels can be a problem for marketing the clams to human consumers. After death, DMSP begins to break down into DMS. A little DMS creates a pleasant flavor, but high concentrations offend the human palate.(2,14)
Not all grazers retain DMS in their tissues, though. At sea, DMS is released when zooplankton feed on algae. It’s been shown in the marine copepods Labidocera aestiva and Centropages hamatus feeding on the dinoflagellate Gymnodinium nelson that nearly all the DMS in the consumed algae is quickly released during feeding and digestion.(15) This has a disadvantage for the grazing zooplankton. Marine predators, like procellariiform seabirds, harbor seals, penguins, whale sharks, cod, and coral reef fishes like brown chromis, Creole wrasse and boga, can use the smell of DMS to locate zooplankton to feed on. (8,16,17)
It’s not easy to measure how much DMS is released from the Ocean into the air every year. Recent estimates suggest 13-37 Teragrams, or 1.3-3.7 billion kilograms. This accounts for about half the natural transport of Sulfur into the atmosphere, is the conveyor belt by which Sulfur cycles from the ocean back to land. In the atmosphere, DMS is oxidized into several compounds that serve as Cloud Condensation Nuclei (CCN). The presence of CCN in the air determines when and where clouds form, which affects not only the Water cycle, but the reflection of sunlight away from the Earth. This is why climate scientists believe DMS plays an important role in regulating the Earth’s climate. (12,18)