Science & Technology



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

Julia Rosen, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Science & Technology News

Climate change is about big things: melting ice sheets, rising seas, the feverish temperature of the planet.

But scientists say it's also about little things -- namely, microbes.

Everywhere you look on Earth, you'll find these single-celled organisms making a living. And in the process, they produce and consume greenhouse gases including carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide, helping to control the concentration of these planet-warming substances in the atmosphere. Collectively, they play an enormous role in regulating the climate.

They are also the glue that holds ecosystems together. They often form the base of the food web and perform critical duties, such as breaking down organic matter, recycling nutrients and photosynthesizing.

Like all life forms, microbes will feel the impacts of climate change. The way they respond could have huge implications for the rest of us. For instance, microbes will help determine whether natural sources of greenhouse gases rise or fall in a warming world. And they are key to ecological resilience in the face of environmental stress.

That's why a group of scientists issued a consensus statement calling for more research on the topic in this week's issue of Nature Reviews Microbiology. Ominously, they called it "Scientists' Warning to Humanity."


The Los Angeles Times spoke with Victoria Orphan, a microbial ecologist at Caltech who helped write the statement, about why we shouldn't overlook microbes.

Q: Just so we're all on the same page, what are microbes?

A: They have one cell, by definition. Most you can't see with your naked eye. But as small as they are, they are incredibly powerful in terms of the types of chemistry that they can do.

Q: Where do they live?


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