The scenic blue haze that descends over the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia and the Blue Mountains of Australia is formed by atmospheric reactions with isoprene. Individual trees forming blankets of forest over the mountain ranges emit this volatile organic compound to protect plants against heat and light-induced damage. Globally, isoprene is emitted at similar quantities to methane with each constituting a 1/3 of total volatile organic compounds, roughly 600 tonnes per annum. Yet our knowledge of isoprene does not reflect its abundance.
The University of East Anglia and the University of Essex are working together using innovative research to expand and improve our knowledge of this enigmatic compound. Our interests lie not in the widely studied production of isoprene and its flux from trees to atmosphere, but rather in the neglected contribution of microbes to its biogeochemical cycle.
Understanding the consumption of isoprene by microbes is of growing importance. Isoprene can have both positive and negative effects on global warming and isoprene-degrading microbes may be the key to understanding and predicting these outcomes. Our urgency to understand more is also fuelled by the ever-expanding bioenergy industry. The growing number of isoprene-emitting biofuel crop plantations will alter isoprene flux to the atmosphere. Our research is critical in explaining the role that isoprene-degrading microbes play in the moderation of atmospheric isoprene.