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Why tiny microbes may be a big factor in how climate change unfolds

Julia Rosen, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

Q: Can you give an example of how microbes' response to climate change could amplify the problem?

A: A familiar one is melting permafrost. Basically, you're taking carbon-rich frozen sediments and you are thawing them. Microorganisms are feasting on this organic carbon and, as an end product of their metabolism, they are producing things like methane. It's like taking a frozen dinner out of the freezer and thawing it -- now it's become edible.

There's tremendous amounts of carbon in permafrost that has been stored for many thousands of years, if not longer. But all of a sudden it is being made available all at once. It's not just the fact that this process is going on, it's also the speed that then can throw systems out of balance.

Q: Are there ways microbes can help?

A: I think there's a lot of exciting potential for engineering microbes. But in order to apply this in an effective way, we really need to understand their full impact in ecosystems and how they respond.

My colleague Frances Arnold is sort of the champion for doing directed evolution and making all sorts of very interesting products and things that we never could have dreamed that a microbe could do.

Q: What's an example of a way microbes can help the climate?

A: Cows are a huge producer of methane. That methane is produced in their rumens from fermentation of grasses or corn. And this rumen is like a little ecosystem -- just like studying deep-sea sediments. So there may be ways that we can better understand how microorganisms are working together to try to either minimize methane production from the start, or try to oxidize that methane before it's belched out of the cow.

Q: In the consensus statement, you warn that "the impact of climate change will depend heavily on responses of microorganisms." What do you want people to do with that knowledge?


A: I would like them to not only have an appreciation for the fact that microbes basically rule the planet and we are just, you know, kind of visiting, but also to value and understand the importance of putting in effort in researching this. We're starting to get on that trajectory, but there still needs to be greater awareness of its importance.

Q: Is there anything else you want us to know?

A: People have gone through this radical change from thinking that microorganisms were dangerous germs to embracing the microbiome. That's really wonderful, because people really care about their well-being and health. How then do we translate that excitement and wonder to the natural world around us? I think that is the big challenge.

(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

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