Climate Change Identified as Top Priority by Academy Fellows
In late 2021, the American Academy of Microbiology (Academy), the honorific leadership group and scientific think tank of ASM, announced a 5-year plan to build a scientific portfolio exclusively on the topic of climate change and microbes. While the Academy has organized annual colloquia in the past tackling various scientific issues, this is the first long-term and highly focused endeavor, sparked by the Academy’s desire to facilitate impactful outcomes. Why would leading microbiologists, commonly associated with studying the smallest organisms on Earth, tackle a global problem like climate change?
“Microbes play critical roles in our ecosystem, but they are often forgotten in climate-related conversations,” explained Arturo Casadevall, M.D., Ph.D., Chair of Academy Governors and Professor of Molecular Microbiology and Immunology and Infectious Diseases at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. “We need a strategy and to stay focused on finding solutions to this existential threat to humanity.”
“If we view our world in the broad framework of the Gaia hypothesis and the One Health model of planetary interaction, then it’s clear that climate change is the overarching challenge that affects our future,” explained Guy Lanza, Ph.D., adjunct research professor in the Division of Environmental Sciences at the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry and former Director of the Environmental Science Program at University of Massachusetts Amherst. “Every aspect of climate change is influenced by microbial processes that have direct effects on each of our major interactions with nature.”
Over the next 5 years, the Academy’s portfolio seeks to promote the understanding of the relationship between microbes and climate change and build a scientific framework to inform climate change policies and market innovations. Earlier this year, the Academy released the report Microbes and Climate Change - Science, People & Impacts to provide a foundation for current knowledge while highlighting knowledge gaps and outlining recommendations for research priorities, policy considerations and societal recommendations to combat microbial injustice. Building on that foundation, the Academy will collaborate with the larger ASM community and experts outside the field of microbiology such as climate change scientists, engineers, mathematical modelers and urban planners.
Why Should Microbiologists Research Climate Change?
As one of the longest living organisms on Earth, microbes have survived and mastered the art of adaptation to the planet’s changing environment. However, how microbes will respond to the current climate driven by anthropogenic activities, and in turn how this will impact human health and well-being, remains unknown. That’s why, in a survey, Academy fellows ranked climate change as their number 1 priority to address, over other potential portfolio topics including antimicrobial resistance, pandemic preparedness, microbiome research and synthetic biology.
“All essential ecosystem processes are mediated by microbes,” Lanza said. “Changes in major ecosystems from deforestation, dams, industrialization, agriculture and other human activities alter natural processes and their microbiomes. Climate change increases the incidence of diseases, crop losses and malnutrition, and causes large scale migrations of humans and other animals, including the migrants’ microbiomes, to new parts of the globe,” Lanza said. “Research on microbes in the context of climate change is not only important, but also essential, if we are serious about understanding and adapting to the consequences of increased average temperature, and the cascade of events that result.”
“Microbes have a huge [role], both positive and negative, on the planetary levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere,” said Borden Lacy, Ph.D., a pathology, microbiology and immunology professor at Vanderbilt University. “While cyanobacteria in the oceans are converting atmospheric carbon into organic compounds with an efficiency twice that of plants, many of the microbes in the soil are promoting the decomposition of organic matter and carbon dioxide emissions. An understanding of how microbes live and respond to their micro-environments provides a path for understanding how to direct positive changes in the environment as a whole.”
“Climate change has a huge One Health impact,” explained Karen Carroll, M.D., a professor of pathology at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and the Director of the Division of Medical Microbiology. “Already we are seeing changes in animal behavior related to the oceans warming, the disappearance of glaciers, the persistence and expansion of insect vectors. Climate change is leading to food insecurity in areas of significant drought or other climate conditions, and malnutrition impacts human health in many ways including increasing susceptibility to infections,” she said. Carroll also pointed out that as temperate climates warm, tropical diseases such as dengue, malaria and other infections have been observed in new geographical locations. “We have seen epidemics of cholera related to the devastation caused by more powerful hurricanes and an increase in Aeromonas and Vibrio vulnificus infections related to injuries sustained during flooding from higher than usual rainfalls.”
Microbiologists Play a Pivotal Role
A group as holistic and diverse as the American Society for Microbiology can provide powerful science-backed research across a range of sub-disciplines and improve the public’s understanding of climate change, ultimately driving action. Moreover, addressing climate change with a multidisciplinary approach will help our world deal with other, interrelated One Health issues like antimicrobial resistance and disease prevalence.
“In order to gain public understanding and support of policies and activities required to make progress, an ASM portfolio that increases the visibility of the importance of the microbiome is essential. Educating the public about the broad roles played by microorganisms will go a long way in countering the all-too-common myth that all microbes cause disease and pestilence and are the enemy of our species,” said Lanza. ASM’s Advocacy team is working alongside the Academy to share resources and recommendations for science-based climate solutions with federal policymakers.
“A few years ago, I might have said that the sub-discipline does not have a connection to climate change,” said Lacy, whose research focuses on how bacterial pathogens cause disease in primarily human hosts. “More recently though, I have come to appreciate that the problem of climate change is the greatest challenge facing human life as we know it. It is an ‘all hands on deck’ type of problem, and we all have something to offer. For example, I think that those of us who have focused on mechanisms of microbe-host interactions can bring important perspectives to advancing the mechanistic understanding of the microbe-host interactions needed for more sustainable agriculture and better resilience in health.”
“I believe climate change impacts all microbiology disciplines,” Carroll agreed.
Looking forward, the Academy will continue to organize scientific activities including colloquia and reports, as well as a special climate change guest track at the 2023 Microbe meeting and partnership with diverse stakeholders. Opportunities can be found on the portfolio web site.