MSU Researcher Co-Authors Paper that Raises Awareness of Microbes' Importance to Climate Change

Christine Foreman, left, and Heidi Smith, right, in the McMurdo Dry Valleys region of Antarctica during a study that lead to a 2017 paper about carbon released by microbes in glacial meltwater

A Montana State University researcher has joined scientific colleagues around the world in calling for greater attention to microbes when studying and addressing global climate change. 

Christine Foreman, associate professor in the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering [and IoE affiliate], is one of 33 co-authors of the article "Scientists' warning to humanity: microorganisms and climate change" in the journal Nature Reviews Microbiology. The article was published online on June 18. The co-authors include leading microbiologists in Germany, Australia, the U.K., Canada and throughout the U.S.

"Microbes are integral to the habitability of our planet," Foreman said. "A better understanding of global microbial diversity and activity is needed to appreciate future responses to our changing environment."

The article cites nearly 300 other published research papers in summarizing how microbes such as bacteria underpin other life on Earth, making them central to how the planet's biological systems will respond to human-caused climate change. Despite that important role, however, microbes are an "unseen majority" that is in need of greater scientific study, the authors state.

For example, half of all conversion of carbon dioxide into oxygen by photosynthesis is performed by cyanobacteria and other phytoplankton in the ocean, even though they constitute only 1% of the Earth's plant biomass, according to the authors. Some studies have suggested that marine phytoplankton are in decline as a result of climate change, but conclusions have been limited by available data, highlighting the need for more intensive, long-term research.

By impacting microbes, climate change will also impact humans by way of changes in agriculture and infectious disease, according to the paper. For instance, increasing temperatures are expected to disrupt microbial communities that support soil fertility while expanding the habitable ranges of disease-carrying organisms such as mosquitoes and ticks.

Foreman's previous research on the relationship between microbes and climate change includes a 2017 paper in Nature Geoscience about microbes in glacial meltwater in Antarctica. The paper challenged the prevailing theory that the microbes consume primarily ancient organic carbon that was once deposited on glacial surfaces and incorporated into ice as glaciers formed by demonstrating that a large proportion of the carbon instead comes from photosynthetic bacteria. The researchers found that the photosynthetic bacteria produced roughly four times more carbon than was taken up by the microbes, resulting in an excess of organic carbon being flushed downstream.

The consensus statement paper also summarizes ways that microbes could be used to stem climate change. For instance, microbes could be combined with municipal wastewater and plant matter to produce cellulosic biofuel, a substitute for gasoline.

"Hopefully this paper will help spur action that can help mitigate climate change," Foreman said.

Article originally published online by MSU News Service.

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