Polysaccharides are major components of macroalgal and phytoplankton biomass and constitute a large fraction of the organic matter produced and degraded in the ocean. Until recently, however, our knowledge of marine polysaccharides was limited due to their great structural complexity, the correspondingly complicated enzymatic machinery used by microbial communities to degrade them, and a lack of readily applied means to isolate and characterize polysaccharides in detail. Advances in carbohydrate chemistry, bioinformatics, molecular ecology, and microbiology have led to new insights into the structures of polysaccharides, the means by which they are degraded by bacteria, and the ecology of polysaccharide production and decomposition. Here, we survey current knowledge, discuss recent advances, and present a new conceptual model linking polysaccharide structural complexity and abundance to microbially driven mechanisms of polysaccharide processing. We conclude by highlighting specific future research foci that will shed light on this central but poorly characterized component of the marine carbon cycle.
EPIC Alfred Wegener Institut