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Experts warn of connections between microorganisms and climate change

Alan Flurry

As scientists improve their understanding of the impacts of microorganisms on the broad systems and that keep global biological cycles in balance, responses to a changing climate by microbes on land and sea across the Earth have become key indicators.

Now, more than 30 microbiologists from 9 countries have issued a warning to humanity – they are calling for the world to stop ignoring an ‘unseen majority’ in Earth’s biodiversity and ecosystem when addressing climate change.  

‘Scientist’s warning to humanity: micro-organisms and climate change’ was published today in the journal Nature Reviews Microbiology. Professor Rick Cavicchioli, microbiologist at the School of Biotechnology and Biomolecular Sciences at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia led the global effort that was co-authored by University of Georgia Regents’ Professor in the department of marine sciences Mary Ann Moran.

“Over just the past few decades, we’ve come to understand that microbes are the foundation of Earth’s element cycles…they virtually run the planet…and therefore all other organisms depend on them,” said Moran, who has widely published her research on the ocean micro-biome, microorganisms in the world’s oceans.  

In their statement, the scientists call on researchers, institutions and governments to commit to greater microbial recognition to mitigate climate change. Moran’s vast research experience includes studies of bacteria that transform carbon and sulfur on a global scale, along the coasts as well as the deep ocean.

“An ounce of seawater from the Georgia coast contains 60 million marine bacteria, each of which has about 2,500 genes,” she said. “But the function of more than half these genes, and the roles they play in ocean sustainability, is still unknown. This is a gap we really need to fill.”

Invisible to naked eye, the volume and diversity of microbes in the global ecosystem represent a structured ecological community that regulates how the Earth functions, from energy consumption to respiration, and including the operation of carbon and other element cycles.

“As our climate changes, the marine microbes that I study are facing higher seawater temperatures, lower nutrient supplies, and an acidifying environment, all of which influence how much CO2 they can pull out of the atmosphere through photosynthesis and trap in the ocean for long-term storage,” she said.

With their statement, the researchers are hoping to raise awareness both for how microbes can influence climate change and how they will be impacted by it – calling for including microbes in climate change research, increasing the use of research involving innovative technologies, and improving education in classrooms. 

"This paper calls for recognition that microbes play critical functions in the environment, and that they are on the front lines of climate change,” Moran said.

Image: Fig. 1: Microorganisms and climate change in marine and terrestrial biomes, Nature Reviews Microbiology

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