Monday, 17 April 2017 09:50

Shifts in Microbial Communities due to Climate Change Affect All Ecosystems

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Published in mBiosphere

“As we experience unprecedented environmental impacts from climate change, microbes rapidly adapt to their surrounding conditions faster than other organisms. Because microbes control biogeochemical cycling of elements essential for life, this impacts every ecosystem on earth. In addition, these changes alter the transmission of plant, animal, and human disease.” Thus says Stanley Maloy, one of the Steering Committee Members of a recent Colloquium on Microbes and Climate Change. 

To address the major areas that may be affected by changing microbial processes, the American Academy of Microbiology and the American Geophysical Union convened a Colloquium in March 2016. Bringing together expert representatives from the two communities enabled a discussion to examine a number of important issues across scientific disciplines. This is the first collaboration between the two scientific societies, whose combined worldwide members number over 115,000, on this important topic. “Microbes drive essential transformations in all global elemental cycles. They are really the movers and the shakers of the planet,” said Colloquium Steering Committee member Mary Ann Moran.  “This AAM and AGU Colloquium brought together experts in two key fields – microbiology and earth sciences – to consider how microbes might respond to, and potentially mitigate, the effects of climate change.” The issues discussed have been summarized in an FAQ Report, now published and available online.


Climate Change FAQ"Microbes and Climate Change" FAQ report available now: source.

FAQ: Microbes and Climate Change


As changes in climatic patterns occur, some microbial populations will undergo adaptations that affect their respiration rates, growth rates, or metabolic byproducts. The FAQ report addresses three key areas that are already undergoing environmental changes: (1) terrestrial polar regions, (2) soil, agriculture, and freshwater, and (3) oceans. Because microbial generation times are much shorter than those of plants or animals in affected areas, sampling microbial genomes over time is one way to assess the magnitude of changes and how the natural environment will adapt to climate change stress.

The common theme among the changes in these various biomes is the important role of observational data and further experimentation from all scientific fields. “An interdisciplinary approach to understand these problems is crucial for efforts to mitigate the impact of climate change on our environment and health,” said Maloy. Deeper understanding of microbial ecological shifts will help scientists understand and even predict some of the changes at the ecosystem level. Genomics and detailed biochemical experiments have increased our ability to understand contributions by individual microbial species, but scientists are only beginning to understand the complexity of these interactions at the microbial community level. Developing and implementing new techniques will be essential to assessing the effects of a changing environment.

For more on the interaction of microbes and climate change, including many specific examples, check out the FAQ. The 2015 issue of Cultures Magazine also contains a number of in-depth articles, highlighting not only some of the issues addressed here, but also mitigating climate change effects through microbial applications.

Last modified on Monday, 17 April 2017 10:42
Julie Wolf

Julie Wolf is the ASM Science Communications Specialist. She contributes to the ASM social media and blog network and hosts the Meet the Microbiologist podcast. She also runs workshops at ASM conferences to help scientists improve their own communication skills. Follow Julie on Twitter for more ASM and microbiology highlights at @JulieMarieWolf.

Julie earned her Ph.D. from the University of Minnesota, focusing on medical mycology and infectious disease. Outside of her work at ASM, she maintains a strong commitment to scientific education and teaches molecular biology at the community biolab, Genspace. She lives in beautiful New York City.