Nature’s natural recyclers
The microbes play a crucial role as ecological recyclers of the Earth. Depending on their genomic prowess, they can utilize certain compounds and then convert them into another form that can be used by other groups of living organisms. In fact, many plants and animals depend on them for survival because of the role that only they could fill in and nobody else in nature could.
Global climate change impact on microbes
Global warming stems chiefly from the generation of greenhouse gases, e.g. carbon dioxide and methane. These gases tend to trap heat energy reflected by the Earth’s surface.
Researchers began recognizing the susceptibility of microorganisms to global warming. (1) According to their projections, the effects are going to be substantial and the chain of events, generally not good.
In the carbon cycle system, for instance, microbes utilize organic compounds and then by respiration and decomposition they ultimately release carbon dioxide as a byproduct. As temperature rises, these microbial processes are projected to be amplified, including carbon dioxide release. This incited a cause of concern. As temperature rises, a myriad of habitats are expected to be affected. Glaciers and snowpack are one of them. High temperatures could destroy them. The microorganisms that thrive underneath could die due to the subsequent environmental pressure, e.g. the unfavorable temperature shift.
Sure, the death of other organisms, such as the snow molds, means fewer organisms releasing carbon dioxide. However, it could also mean the death of other organisms, such as the trees that procure water from the snow. Without the trees, the assimilation of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere is diminished. This, in turn, contributes to the high carbon dioxide level in the atmosphere.
Recently, a team of researchers sent a warning that global climate change threatens humanity not just because of its direct disruptive effects. It could also unlock microbes dangerous to human health. (2) While we can tolerate ambient temperatures within a few degrees higher, some microbes can do so better than us. They can adapt to temperatures higher than we could ever tolerate. Thus, natural selection will favor their survival. With their escalated growth, this could implicate the emergence of new infectious pathogens. As they turned out to be more tolerable to higher temperatures, they could surpass our endothermy immune defense barrier. (3) Apparently, these novel pathogens pose a threat not just to us but also to vulnerable animals and crops. Thus, the adverse impact could extend ecologically, particularly to the food chain.
A potential combatant?
An increase in temperature leads to an intensified microbial activity and this includes the microbial procurement of greenhouse gases. For instance, a newly-discovered bacterium Methylokorus infernorum in its geothermal habitat was found to utilize methane gas. As such, researchers are now eyeing its use in combating methane gas pollution. The bacteria can consume about 11 kg/year of methane and therefore can help reduce methane emitted by factories and landfills.
Global climate change indubitably affects microbes. In consequence, microbes cast major effects on a global scale as well. Unfortunately, there are not many climate-change studies conducted on microbes. More microbe-based research studies are essential to create a better model of what transpires and what may come. Otherwise, we are setting aside an issue that might hit us hard one day.
Climate Change Could Impact Vital Functions Of Microbes. (2020). ScienceDaily. https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/06/080603085922.htm
Ahima, R. S. (2020). Global warming threatens human thermoregulation and survival. Journal of Clinical Investigation, 130(2), 559–561. https://doi.org/10.1172/jci135006
Johns Hopkins Researchers: Climate Change Threatens to Unlock New Microbes and Increase Heat-Related Illness and Death. (2020, January 22). Johns Hopkins Medicine Newsroom. https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/news/newsroom/news-releases/johns-hopkins-researchers-climate-change-threatens-to-unlock-new-microbes-and-increase-heat-related-illness-and-death
About the author
Vicki Mozo is an editor of Biology Online. Being a researcher by nature, writer by passion, she is happy to share her life experience and professional knowledge with the people around.