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Microbes may be small but have big impact in climate change, report says

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Bleached coral, Acoropora sp. Photo Courtesy: ASM Microbes and Climate Change Report

University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa oceanographer David Karl co-authored a report that found while microbes may be small, they are highly impactful to environmental and human health amid a changing climate.

The report, Microbes and Climate Change: Science, People & Impacts, included input from more than 30 experts from diverse disciplines. It was published in the American Society for Microbiology (ASM).

MIcrobes are major drivers of elemental cycles and producers and consumers of three of the gases responsible for 98% of increased global warming: carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide.

To fully understand how to adapt to climate change, it is critical to learn how the changing climate will impact microbes and how they relate to humans and the environment.

“It has been said that the very great is achieved by the very small,” Karl said. “Micobes matter.” 

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Since 1988, Karl and his colleagues have been tracking changes in the ecology of marine microbes in response to climate change at UH’s deep sea observatory, Station ALOHA.

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The microbial sciences can provide invaluable insights about how to adapt to climate change and its cascading effects. From developing alternative fuels to preventing the spread of pathogens, the applications of microbes are vast and far-reaching.

Algal blooms can endanger humans and animals. Photo Courtesy: ASM Microbes & Climate Change Report

The World Health Organization identified climate change as “single biggest health threat facing humanity in 2021,” having adverse impacts on water quality, food security and global economies. Additionally, a recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change found changes to Earth’s climate in every region of the world, noting the unprecedented scale and speed in warming of the planet’s surface over the last 200 years.

“ASM’s new colloquium report underscores that in the quest to find solutions for climate change, we, as a society and scientific community, have new opportunities to use microbes to our benefit,” said Nguyen K. Nguyen, director of ASM’s American Academy of Microbiology.

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The report details major recommendations for researchers, policymakers and regulators.

Key report recommendations:

  • Emphasize interdisciplinary research focused on understanding how microbial activities and metabolic flux alter as climate, precipitation and temperatures change globally.
  • Provide guidance for experimental design and data collection for studying microbial communities that allows for data comparison across diverse and global ecosystems.
  • Incorporate existing data about microbial diversity and activity on consuming and producing greenhouse gases into Earth-climate models to improve the current and predictive performance of models.
  • Increase research investments to generate knowledge and awareness of the contribution of microbes to the generation and consumption of warming gases; incorporate these findings into evidence-based policy and regulatory strategies to address climate change.
  • Deploy increased surveillance and detection of zoonotic and vector-borne diseases in animals and humans, including through next generation sequencing technologies, and incorporate a One Health approach to addressing climate changes’ effects on humans, animals and the environment.

The report is the outcome of the American Society of Microbiology’s November 2021 colloquium meeting, which brought together more than 30 experts from diverse disciplines and sectors who provided multifaceted perspectives and insights. The American Academy of Microbiology, the honorific leadership group and think tank within ASM, convened the colloquium.

Karl, the director of the Center for Microbial Oceanography: Research and Education in UH Mānoa’s School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology (SOEST), also was an author on the companion paper, Microbes and Climate Change, a Research Prospectus for the Future. It was published this week in mBio.

The mBio paper builds on concepts discussed at the November colloquium meeting and provides an extended view and opinions on research needed to fill in the knowledge gaps.

To learn more about the impact of microbes on climate change, visit the American Society for Microbiology’s Microbes and Climate Change resource page and read the article, What Microbes Can Teach Us About Adapting to Climate Change.

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