Microbes as climate engineers

Jan 29, 2008

We might think we control the climate but unless we harness the powers of our microbial co-habitants on this planet we might be fighting a losing battle, according to an article in the February 2008 issue of Microbiology Today.

Humans are continually altering the atmosphere. “Arrogant organisms that we are, it is easy to view this as something entirely novel in Earth’s history,” says Dr Dave Reay from the University of Edinburgh. “In truth of course, micro-organisms have been at it for billions of years.”

Humans affect the atmosphere indirectly by their activities. Most human-induced methane comes from livestock, rice fields and landfill: in all of these places, microbes are actually responsible for producing the methane, 150 million tonnes a year. Microbes in wetlands produce an additional 100 million tonnes and those that live inside termites release 20 million tonnes of methane annually.

90 billion tonnes of carbon a year is absorbed from the atmosphere by the oceans, and almost as much is released; microbes play a key role in both. On land, a combination of primary production, respiration and microbial decomposition leads to the uptake of 120 billion tonnes of carbon every year and the release of 119 billion tonnes.

“The impact of these microbially-controlled cycles on future climate warming is potentially huge,” says Dr Reay. By better understanding these processes we could take more carbon out of the atmosphere using microbes on land and in the sea. Methane-eating bacteria can be used to catch methane that is released from landfill, Cyanobacteria could provide hydrogen fuel, and plankton have already become a feedstock for some biofuels.

“Microbes will continue as climate engineers long after humans have burned that final barrel of oil. Whether they help us to avoid dangerous climate change in the 21st century or push us even faster towards it depends on just how well we understand them.”

Source: Society for General Microbiology

Explore further: Sharks off the menu and on the tourist trail in Palau

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Researchers tap into CO2 storage potential of mine waste

Nov 15, 2012

It's time to economically value the greenhouse gas-trapping potential of mine waste and start making money from it, says mining engineer and geologist Michael Hitch of the University of British Columbia (UBC).

Cruise to investigate impacts of ocean acidification

Jun 07, 2011

The UK research vessel RRS Discovery left Liverpool yesterday on the first research cruise specifically to study ocean acidification in European waters. Twenty four scientists from eight different UK institutes, ...

Recommended for you

Sharks off the menu and on the tourist trail in Palau

38 minutes ago

In many places swimmers might prefer to avoid sharks, but wetsuit-clad tourists in Palau clamour to dive among the predators thanks to a pioneering conservation initiative that has made them one of the country's ...

DNA may have had humble beginnings as nutrient carrier

18 hours ago

New research intriguingly suggests that DNA, the genetic information carrier for humans and other complex life, might have had a rather humbler origin. In some microbes, a study shows, DNA pulls double duty ...

Central biobank for drug research

18 hours ago

For the development of new drugs it is crucial to work with stem cells, as these allow scientists to study the effects of new active pharmaceutical ingredients. But it has always been difficult to derive ...

No-take marine reserves a no-win for seahorses

19 hours ago

A UTS study on how seahorses are faring in no-take marine protected areas (MPAs) in NSW has revealed that where finishing is prohibited, seahorses aren't doing as well.

User comments : 0