Phytoplankton ©Rick Cavicchioli
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They do good – and yet they are much better known for their negative effects: microbes. As soon as people realize that they might be present somewhere, excessive caution takes hold. Yet we would be wise to let these tiny single-celled organisms do their work more often than we may like to imagine. After all, they are the ones who made our life on Earth possible in the first place. As the entire evolution of life dates back to microorganisms. They have been shaping the earth for over 3.8 billion years. In the end, they were the ones who created the basis of life for multiple cell organisms. Ultimately for humans as well.

Yet they are precisely what are now destroying our habitat all over again. Prof. Dr. Antje Boetius, Director of the Alfred Wegener Institute, Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research (AWI) and team leader at the Max Planck Institute for Marine Microbiology describes the current situation:

“A favorable, stable climate which lasted 12,000 years, along with technologies based on comparatively cheap natural energy resources such as wood, coal, oil and gas, have enabled the human population to grow exponentially. Initial findings on the interaction of climate with microorganisms in soil and water show that the reciprocal effects are not in our favour. As it gets warmer, the microbes produce more CO2. The scale of climate and environmental damage and the loss of species in general, means that we must alter our course urgently.”

Prof. Dr. Antje Boetius © Jan Riephoff

Microorganisms could be part of the solution

Boetius also sees several reciprocal effects that further accelerate environmental pollution. As a result, the production of microbial greenhouse gases increases with the expansion of agriculture and animal husbandry. The oceanic biological pump also appears to be weakening in some ocean regions. In addition, diseases could spread across broader climate zones. At the same time, Boetius, in her commentary accompanying the study, (which appeared last May in response to the recent appeal in the “Nature Reviews Microbiology”), stresses that microorganisms could also be a part of the solution. On the one hand, in the quest for sustainable energies and the restoration of habitats. On the other, in relation to the health of our planet and ultimately of us as humans. Consequently, Prof. Dr. Antje Boetius is convinced:

“Because microorganisms have as great an impact on material cycles, productivity and health of our planet as they do on the human body. This field of research will provide essential knowledge for the Earth’s future.”

Understanding the role of microorganisms

This is precisely why an international committee of more than 30 leading microbiologists is now calling on all researchers to take into account the influence of microbes in their studies on climate change within various disciplines, as well as on technical procedures. And they have gone even further: they are also demanding that the subject of microorganisms be included in school syllabuses in order to achieve a better understanding of these hardworking wee creatures.

As already mentioned, microorganisms are indispensable for the existence of all advanced organisms – including humans. Nevertheless, they are seldom featured in the current debates on man-made climate change.

However, in order to understand how climate change works and what it means for us, researchers stress that we must also consider the role of microrganisms. This not only involves how microbes affect climate change, but also how it affects microbes.

This warning now appears in the journal „Nature Reviews Microbiology“, under the auspices of Professor Rick Cavicchioli from the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia.

“Microorganisms, including bacteria and viruses, are important for all higher life forms and crucial for regulating climate change,” says Cavicchioli. “However, they are rarely the focal point in climate change studies and are not taken into account by decision-makers.”

German participation

Aside from Professor Boetius from Germany, Prof. Emeritus Kenneth Timmis from the Technical University of Braunschweig is also involved in the appeal. The microbiologist emphasizes the effects of climate change on infectious diseases. Both in terms of the geographical range of the pathogens and their epidemiological vectors. “This is the reason for the ongoing migration of some infectious diseases, such as malaria and Lyme disease, to regions where they were previously not endemic.”

Climate change is caused by an increase in greenhouse gases. For example, microbes produce these in the rumen of farm animals as well as in rice fields, yet in turn, they also absorb greenhouse gases.

“Microbes play a central role in climate change. So far, discussions have focused on anthropogenic [man-made] sources of greenhouse gases. In our appeal, we stress the urgent need to take microbial activities into account in the discussion on global warming together with relevant policy development. And consider ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions,” Professor Timmis explains.

Boetius adds: “We know that microbial processes can increase global warming. Now we urgently need to find out to what extent microorganisms can also be part of the solution to our problem. For example, in the areas of medicine and sustainable energy, or in the restoration of destroyed habitats.”

Warning to humanity

The scientists describe their appeal as a warning to humanity from a microbiological perspective: A better understanding of the correlations, also helps to take more sustainable and specific measures and decisions. The appeal also calls for microbiology to be more firmly anchored in school curricula. Researchers are invited to join microbiologists in their appeal.

The current initiative was preceded by an appeal from Kenneth Timmis and numerous other scientists for improved teaching of microbiology in schools. The next step is to devise teaching materials for teachers, which will then be freely available on the website of the Society for Applied Microbiology.