What can microorganisms teach us about climate change?
Plenty, because microbes respond, adapt, and evolve faster than other organisms. Scientists can discover how microorganisms will change because of global warming more quickly than is possible for complex organisms. Understanding how microbes respond to climate change will help predict its effects on other forms of life, including humans.
Yet our understanding of microbes’ complex functions in ecosystems and their interaction with a warming planet is incomplete. Filling the knowledge gaps is crucial, says a report just released by the American Academy of Microbiology and the American Geophysical Union. The report, based on a workshop of experts, underscores the importance of microbes in ecosystems buffeted by climate change and identifies priorities for future study.
In addressing climate change, it’s important to understand the importance of microbes in ecosystems, says Joel E. Kostka, a professor in the School of Biological Sciences and the School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences. He was invited to the workshop for his expertise on microbes in terrestrial polar environments. Despite their size, microorganisms provide critical services to ecosystems, Kostka says. “Through activities that produce or consume greenhouse gases, microbes intimately impact Earth’s climate.”
Microbes are the decomposers, breaking down organic matter and recycling nutrients, Kostka says. “Literally, the clean air we breathe and the food we eat depend upon carbon and nutrient cycling – ecosystem services provided by microbes.”
However, the processes microbes mediate are complex and need to be better understood, Kostka says, “so we can make accurate predictions of how ecosystems will respond to climate change.”
One example of that complexity is plant-microbe interactions. Thousands of microbial species make up plant microbiomes – microbes that live inside or on plants. Microbiomes help plants grow better through nutrient acquisition among many functions. Conversely, microbes process organic matter produced by plants. How microbial communities will change due to Earth’s warming will depend on how plants respond and vice versa, Kostka says. To understand the effect of climate change on ecosystems, we have to know how plants and microbiomes interact or communicate.
Also highlighted by the workshop, Kostka says, is the need for communication across scientific disciplines. “I found myself informing the chemists on the latest information we have on microbes and microbial activity in wetlands, for example.”
The report is intended for the public, educators, and the broader science community, Kostka says. “I would hope that it represents a call to action for better understanding of microbiomes in the environment.”