Leaving Microbes Out of Climate Change Dialogue has Major Consequences, Experts Warn

Contacts:
Diana Kenney, Marine Biological Laboratory
508-685-3525; dkenney@mbl.edu

Isabelle Dubach, UNSW Sydney, Australia
+61 2 9385 7307, +61 432 307 244
i.dubach@unsw.edu.au

Sea ice in Antarctica showing a brown layer of ice algae. These microbes thrive in sea ice “houses” and are the beginning of many food webs, which branches out to feed all larger lifeforms. The melting sea ice has a downstream effect on ice algae, which means a diminished food web and greater risk of starving ocean life. Credit: Rick Cavicchioli

Sea ice in Antarctica showing a brown layer of ice algae. These microbes thrive in sea ice “houses” and are the beginning of many food webs, which branches out to feed all larger lifeforms. The melting sea ice has a downstream effect on ice algae, which means a diminished food web and greater risk of starving ocean life. Credit: Rick Cavicchioli

WOODS HOLE, Mass. — More than 30 microbiologists from 9 countries have issued a warning to humanity that omitting microbes – the support system of the biosphere – from  the climate change equation will have major negative consequences.

“Scientists’ warning to humanity: microorganisms and climate change” will be published on Tuesday, June 18 in the journal Nature Reviews Microbiology.

“This Consensus Statement looks to place microbes at the center of the world stage in terms of importance to climate change biology,” the scientists write.  “It also serves to place humanity on notice that the impact of climate change will rely heavily on responses of microbes that are so essential to achieving an environmentally sustainable future.”

“We must learn not just how microbes impact climate change (e.g. production and consumption of greenhouse gases), but also how microbes will be impacted by climate change and other human activities,” the scientists write.

Prof. Rick Cavicchioli, microbiologist at the School of Biotechnology and Biomolecular Sciences at UNSW Sydney, led the global effort to create the consensus statement.

Among the co-authors available for comment is David Mark Welch, director of a world-leading center for microbial ecology, the Josephine Bay Paul Center at the Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL) in Woods Hole, Mass.

Scientists at this MBL center co-directed the International Census of Marine Microbes (2000-2010), were instrumental in the Human Microbiome Project of the National Institutes of Health, and now co-direct the Census of Deep Life, which is exploring microbes beneath the ocean floor.

Measuring saltmarsh greenhouse gas fluxes at Waquoit Bay, Mass. MBL scientist Jim Tang is assessing how a salt marsh’s degree of salinity affects its microbial activity and emission of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas. Credit: Jim Tang

Measuring saltmarsh greenhouse gas fluxes at Waquoit Bay, Mass. MBL Ecosystems Center scientist Jim Tang is assessing how a salt marsh’s degree of salinity affects its microbial activity and emission of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas. Credit: Jim Tang

“We live in a microbial world. Microbes flourish beneath the seafloor and in the atmosphere and everywhere in between. They are the essential life-support system of the planet. It is critical that we integrate microbial studies with global climate change assessments going forward, and consider microbial contributions to mitigating climate change,” Mark Welch says.

Cavicchioli calls microbes the “unseen majority” of lifeforms on earth, playing critical functions in animal and human health, agriculture, the global food web and industry.

“They support the existence of all higher lifeforms and are critically important in regulating climate change,” Cavicchioli says. “However, they are rarely the focus of climate change studies and not considered in policy development.”

Greater commitment to microbe-based research needed

In their statement, the scientists call on researchers, institutions and governments to commit to greater microbial recognition to mitigate climate change.

“The statement emphasizes the need to investigate microbial responses to climate change and to include microbe-based research during the development of policy and management decisions,” says Cavicchioli.

Additionally, climate change research that links biological processes to global geophysical and climate processes should have a much bigger focus on microbial processes. To facilitate a greater understanding of the role of microbes in all environments, scientists at the MBL, the University of Chicago, and Argonne National Laboratory created The Microbiome Center to coordinate interdisciplinary research across the three institutions.

“This goes to the heart of climate change, so if micro-organisms aren’t considered effectively it means models cannot be generated properly and predictions could be inaccurate,” says Cavicchioli.

“Decisions that are made now impact on humans and other forms of life, so if you don’t take into account the microbial world, you’re missing a very big component of the equation.”

Cavicchioli says that microbiologists are also working on developing resources that will be made available for teachers to educate students on the importance of microbes.

“If that literacy is there, that means people will have a much better capacity to engage with things to do with microbiology and understand the ramifications and importance of microbes.”

MBL scientists study how climate change affects microbial activity in frozen arctic soil (permafrost), which contains vast stores of carbon that could be released to the atmosphere. Their research is based at the MBL-directed Arctic Long-Term Ecological Research site in Toolik Lake, Alaska.

MBL Ecosystems Center scientists study how climate change affects microbial activity in frozen arctic soil (permafrost), which contains vast stores of carbon that could be released to the atmosphere. Their research is based at the MBL-directed Arctic Long-Term Ecological Research site in Toolik Lake, Alaska.

A 26-year experiment in which forest soil was warmed to assess climate change effects revealed fluctuations in the rate of soil carbon emission, indicating cycles in the capacity of soil microbes to degrade organic matter and release carbon. Overall, the study, led by MBL Ecosystems Center scientist Jerry Melillo, predicted climate change will cause long-term, increasing and sustained carbon release from soil. Credit: Audrey Barker-Plotkin

A 26-year experiment in which forest soil was warmed to assess climate change effects revealed fluctuations in the rate of soil carbon emission, indicating cycles in the capacity of soil microbes to degrade organic matter and release carbon. Overall, the study, led by MBL Ecosystems Center scientist Jerry Melillo, predicted climate change will cause long-term, increasing and sustained carbon release from soil. Credit: Audrey Barker-Plotkin

Media Resources

Images are available for media use here.

Additional images of marine microbes are here.

Citation:

Ricardo Cavicchioli et al (2019) ‘Scientists’ Warning to Humanity: Microorganisms and Climate Change,’ Nature Reviews Microbiology  DOI: 10.1038/s41579-019-0222-5

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The Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL) is dedicated to scientific discovery – exploring fundamental biology, understanding marine biodiversity and the environment, and informing the human condition through research and education. Founded in Woods Hole, Massachusetts in 1888, the MBL is a private, nonprofit institution and an affiliate of the University of Chicago.