U.S. Department of Energy

Pacific Northwest National Laboratory

Microbes Must be Part of Climate Conversation

Sea ice in Antarctica showing a brown layer of ice algae. These microbes thrive in sea “ice houses” and form the basis of many food webs. (Photo courtesy of Rick Cavicchioli)

PNNL’s Janet Jansson is part of an international team of scientists warning scientists of the urgency to pay more attention to the role of microorganisms in our climate.

In a consensus statement published today in Nature Reviews Microbiology, Jansson and more than 30 colleagues from nine countries call for the world to take into account the “unseen majority” of microbes in Earth’s ecosystem when addressing climate change. 

Rick Cavicchioli of UNSW Sydney in Australia led the effort to compile the statement, “Scientists’ warning to humanity: microorganisms and climate change.”

Who they are, what they're doing: New clues

The researchers are hoping to raise awareness both about how microbes influence climate change and how climate change has an impact on microorganisms. The team calls for including microbes more thoroughly in climate change research, increasing the use of research involving innovative technologies, and improving education. Failing to do so would leave huge questions about the planet and its future, they say.

“It’s been recognized that microbes are important, but they’ve been ignored to some degree because they are very difficult to study,” said Jansson. “In the past, we did not have the tools to know who they were or what they were doing.

“But that is changing rapidly. Now we do have tools to open this ‘black box’ and peer inside, to see which microbes are there, to predict what they are doing, and to understand how their functions are affected by climate,” she added.

The article covers microbes in their many habitats, including the ocean, permafrost, and soil. In the ocean, for example, scientists estimate that 90 percent of the total biomass is microbial, outweighing many times over the combined mass of visible organisms like whales, fish, dolphins, sea lions, and plant life. Microbes indirectly keep almost everything else alive, removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and creating food for other ocean creatures.

On land, microorganisms are critical to agriculture, animal and plant health, and carbon and nutrient cycling. Scientists estimate that the Earth’s soils store a tremendous reserve of organic carbon, about 2,000 billion tons – more than the total mass of 300 billion adult elephants. Microbes are the major factor determining the fate of that huge reservoir of carbon, regulating how much is stored in the soil and how much is released to the atmosphere.

The microscopic majority

While Jansson has studied microbial activity in the soil extensively, she is best known for her studies of microbial activity in permafrost and how their activity is expected to ramp up significantly as temperatures warm.

Wherever the microbial activity – in the soil, the permafrost, or in the human body – Jansson is seeking to expand our knowledge in one key respect: going beyond who the microbes are and understanding what they do.

Today, high-throughput screening of many types of molecules is what Jansson calls “quick, easy, inexpensive, and routine.” The tools provide answers to what types of bacteria are in a sample of dirt, water, or tissue. But understanding what the microbes are doing – how they relate to each other, and how they behave under changing conditions – remains a tall order. 

She and her PNNL colleagues are experts at understanding the molecular messages that tell those stories, through the “omics technologies” – genomics (genes), proteomics (proteins), transcriptomics (transcripts), and metabolomics (metabolites). The capability to capture and understand these molecular messages is very pronounced not only at PNNL but throughout the Department of Energy network.

The team discusses these technologies in its statement, which is direct in its urgency that knowledge of microbes, and the creation of tools and the exploration of science necessary to understand them, are essential to the planet’s future.

“We….put humanity on notice that the microscopic majority can no longer be the unseen elephant in the room. Unless we appreciate the importance of microbial processes, we fundamentally limit our understanding of Earth’s biosphere and response to climate change and thus jeopardize efforts to create an environmentally sustainable future,” the authors write.

More information about the consensus statement is available in this article from the University of New South Wales.

June 2019
| Pacific Northwest National Laboratory