Microbes Hold the Balance in Climate Change: Study
Wed, April 21, 2021

Microbes Hold the Balance in Climate Change: Study

Recently, more than 11,000 scientists across the world declared a climate emergency, warning all of us of “untold suffering due to the climate crisis” / Photo by: Takver via Wikimedia Commons

 

Recently, more than 11,000 scientists across the world declared a climate emergency, warning all of us of “untold suffering due to the climate crisis.” The statement was published in the journal BioScience on the 40th anniversary of the first world climate conference, which happened in Geneva in 1979. According to the scientists, urgent changes are needed to prevent this from happening, which includes slashing meat-eating, halting forest destruction, leaving fossil fuels in the ground, and ending population growth.

“We declare clearly and unequivocally that planet Earth is facing a climate emergency. To secure a sustainable future, we must change how we live. [This] entails major transformations in the ways our global society functions and interacts with natural ecosystems,” the scientists said. 

People have talked about how forests, animals, and humans will be affected by climate change. A lot of conversations have also been had to address the worsening impacts of the climate crisis. However, we are missing a highly significant factor in tackling global warming: microbes. Most of us are not aware that microorganisms, also called microbes, play an integral role in our lives. They make up more than 60 percent of the Earth’s living matter. While some microbes can cause diseases, the majority are completely harmless. Without them, none of us would exist.

The Role of Microbes on Earth

Scientists estimate that 2 to 3 billion species of microbes share the planet with us. Microbes are extremely small living organisms – so small that most of them are invisible – but they play a major role in maintaining life on Earth. They are important in fixing gases and breaking down dead plant and animal matter into simpler substances that are used at the beginning of the food chain. According to experts, the activities of microbes can benefit humans, including the production of medicines, enzymes, and food. 

Microbes have been around for at least 3,500 million years. They are seen in different forms, including bacteria, viruses, protozoa, algae, fungi, and archaea. Cyanobacteria, considered the largest and most diverse group of photosynthetic bacteria, was an important development on our planet. They appeared around 2,800 million years ago and were the first organisms to carry out aerobic photosynthesis.

Microbes are extremely small living organisms – so small that most of them are invisible – but they play a major role in maintaining life on Earth / Photo by: Kateryna Kon via 123RF

 

Previous studies showed that cyanobacteria were responsible for raising the level of oxygen in the Earth’s atmosphere from less than 1 percent to 21 percent of today. This has allowed the evolution of new aerobic species of microbes, which started to colonize every habitat on the planet. Recently, a total of 33 scientists from 35 institutions in eight countries published a consensus statement in the journal Nature Reviews Microbiology. The experts made a plea for the world to stop ignoring the “unseen majority” of our planet’s biodiversity and ecosystem.

Microbes can be found anywhere. The Census of Marine Life estimates that 90 percent of the ocean’s total biomass is microbial, which is largely made up of phytoplankton. It has been reported that they play an important role in the ocean food web. They remove carbon dioxide from our atmosphere. Also, microbes release a range of important greenhouse gases to the atmosphere, including carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide, and methane. 

Why Microbes Are Important to Climate Change

According to scientists, all life on Earth has evolved from microorganisms. They cycle minerals and nutrients through the soil, water, and the atmosphere and also help grow and digest the food we eat. Without these microorganisms, life as we know it wouldn't exist. Earth.com, an online site that delivers unique news and information with a focus on nature, science, and the environment, reported that scientists are hoping to raise awareness about how these tiny living organisms can influence climate change and how they will be impacted by a shifting climate. 

“Micro-organisms, which include bacteria and viruses, are the lifeforms that you don’t see on the conservation websites. They support the existence of all higher lifeforms and are critically important in regulating climate change. However, they are rarely the focus of climate change studies and not considered in policy development,” Rick Cavicchioli, a professor and microbiologist at the School of Biotechnology and Biomolecular Sciences at UNSW Sydney, said. 

Dr. Angela Smirnova, a research associate based in the Extremophile Laboratory in the Department of Biological Sciences at the University of Calgary, reported that microbes hold huge potential in the fight against climate change. According to SelectScience, an innovative online publisher within the science industry, these tiny organisms are capable of metabolizing methane from the atmosphere, which can actively reduce the greenhouse gas burden. This is important as methane largely contributes to greenhouse gas emissions. 

According to scientists, all life on Earth has evolved from microorganisms. They cycle minerals and nutrients through the soil, water, and the atmosphere and also help grow and digest the food we eat / Photo by: Evgeniy Kalinovskiy via 123RF

 

However, microbes can also worsen the climate crisis. A study has discovered that global warming is supercharging some microbial cycles on a scale big enough to trigger damaging climate feedback loops. Inside Climate News, a Pulitzer Prize-winning, non-profit, non-partisan news organization dedicated to covering climate change, energy, and the environment, reported that bacteria can produce extra carbon dioxide due to the increasing global temperatures. For instance, Arctic ice is melting at a faster rate due to the spreading of algae. 

Also, it was found that deadly pathogenic microbes have been spreading, causing the death of people, cattle and crops. Tom Crowther, an environmental scientist with ETH Zürich, stated that global warming increases microbial activity, which drives global warming feedback loops. As a result, soils would significantly increase carbon emissions by 2050. Other impacts that microbes can bring include threatening freshwater fish, spreading of crop diseases that threaten food security, and spreading of a fungal epidemic that can wipe out amphibians across the world. 

Microbes can either save our planet or worsen climate change. It is up to us to handle them and the changes they bring. After all, humans are the major reason why Earth is suffering from environmental issues.