Microbiologists as Experts in Climate Change Conversations

July 11, 2022

Climate change-induced variations in temperature, humidity or atmospheric composition can have large impacts on microbial community structure, and subsequent effects on ecosystems, agriculture and human health. Despite their important roles, microbes, and the contributions of microbiologists, have long been overlooked in conversations and publications about climate change processes.

"This is a major problem, because the great elemental flows in this planet are [carried out] by microbes, and we worry that climate models and climate mitigation cannot be done effectively unless there is involvement [and use] of microbiology," said American Academy of Microbiology Board of Governors Chair Dr. Arturo Casadevall, a professor at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

The American Academy of Microbiology’s 5-year Climate Change and Microbes Scientific Portfolio seeks to position microbiologists as thought leaders who actively participate in climate change discussions.

"[The Academy’s] goal is simple: to make the microbial sciences part of all conversations about climate change," Casadevall announced during at the Academy Chair’s symposium at ASM Microbe.

Incorporating Microbial Data in Climate Change Models

Microbes in terrestrial, urban and aquatic environments consume and generate greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change. They may serve as carbon sources or sinks, either adding to or reducing the net flow of global emissions. Incorporating microbial processes into Earth climate models can aid in predicting storms, agricultural yields and the climate-induced spread of water-borne and vector-borne diseases. These models will help public health and policy makers plan for and outline effective strategies to address climate change threats.

"Microorganisms are important for understanding the stability and functioning of environmental, engineered and host-associated ecosystems," said Dr. Jay Terrence Lennon, a biology professor at Indiana University Bloomington. "Ignoring microorganisms in the face of climate change increases risks and disservices in social, economic and health systems.

Scientists use what is known about biogeochemical cycles to build predictive models that provide insight into what the long-term effect of climate change might be under different scenarios. These models incorporate multiple interacting variables, such as photosynthesis and respiration rates, most often on a global scale, and over a long period of time. Though microbes play a key role in these processes (marine phytoplankton contribute roughly one-half of the global net primary production on Earth), it is difficult to determine the influence small-scale microbial processes will have on large-scale outcomes.

Climate models have improved significantly over the last few decades, but most current Earth system climate models still have limited explicit representation of microbial processes that affect carbon and nitrogen cycling in terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems. Scientists across disciplines don’t have what they need to incorporate the microbial sciences into climate change initiatives and remediation processes, the Academy concluded in a 2012 colloquium that brought together stakeholders in biogeochemistry, civil engineering, environmental biology, industry, marine biology, policy and public health. There is still a need for research studies, tools and data systems that examine the dynamics of microbial nutrient cycling and community structure in response to climate change, especially those that can collect and analyze data in real time. The use of climate change-related microbial data can help make predictions more accurate by capturing the intricacies of feedback loops.

Climate change induces alterations in soil microbial communities
Climate change induces alterations in soil microbial communities. Bacteria, archaea and fungal hyphae are impacted by changes in temperature, precipitation, storms, soil organic carbon and greenhouse gases, leading to changes in community structure as indicated in the diagram by changes in color.
Source: Jansson & Hofmockel 2019
For example, microbes drive many aspects of soil carbon dynamics, but because their metabolic processes are species-specific, carbon offset models must account for the microbial composition of the ecosystem. "Even a small change in how microbes work can have large consequences," said New Mexico University professor Dr. Adriana Romero-Olivares, who studies carbon use by various species of fungi during decomposition. "If they reduce their production of CO2, even by 10%, it could offset our emissions. On the other hand, if they double their emissions, that could be catastrophic." Romero-Olivares, a member of the Academy’s Climate Change Task Force, also collaborates with carbon researchers to incorporate trait-based distributions among fungal groups into larger, more accurate Earth system models.

Engaging in Interdisciplinary Climate Change Discussions

Microbiologists can, and should, bring their unique perspectives to climate change conversations with industry, policymakers and communities, the Academy’s 2022 colloquium report concluded. By engaging in these interdisciplinary discussions, microbiologists can leverage their expertise to work systematically with experts in other disciplines to establish consistent protocols and experimental methodologies across temporal and spatial factors.

"Historically, microbial training has focused on processes and mechanisms that can be studied within a test tube," said Lennon. "Today, microbiologists are being trained to think and solve problems on much larger, even global, scales." The Academy’s new Climate Change Task Force is looking to address the perceived divide stemming from tradition, culture, training and the need for more communication, he said.

Microbial data can inform climate change mitigation plans and policies, especially if findings can be applied to specific communities. Dr. Ariane Peralta, an associate professor of microbial ecology at East Carolina University, worked with environmental engineers to improve wetland mitigation plans by incorporating methane emissions into designs originally based on carbon offsets alone. Similarly, civil engineers and environmental quality analysts may benefit from insight into how to leverage and scale microbial communities, which can provide valuable data sets from routine monitoring.

Managing agricultural microbiomes​
Managing agricultural microbiomes as the climate changes involves expertise across disciplines.
Source: Peralta et. al 2014

Partnering with researchers in the humanities, social and political sciences adds a further level of understanding. Peralta also worked with sociologists and anthropologists to study farmer behavior and evaluate which mitigation actions will be most embraced, and therefore, most effective. Communication and collaboration between community leaders  and scientists can help amplify the concerns of marginalized groups and  incorporate diverse perspectives and insights needed to solve problems.

Microbiologists Can Serve as Climate Change Scientists

Climate change scientists are not limited to working in a specific field; however, microbiologists working on related topics tend to begin climate change conversations with the humble caveat, "I’m not a climate scientist." The time-sensitive, global climate crisis requires scientists to break free of traditional labels that silo their research into a specific field. Discipline-specific jargon, incompatible monitoring protocols and measures, and competing research interests pose barriers to collaborative action. Experts can ensure their research is accessible and translatable to those in other fields by engaging in discussion early on to develop a common language and identify stakeholders’ needs.

ASM’s colloquium reports provide some recommendations for the research community:

  • Assess current data collection and develop a monitoring/data collection strategy that is broadly applicable and accessible. Strive for research designs and data types that enable comparison across diverse ecosystems and microbial communities while also accounting for local factors.  
  • Consider a "One Health" approach to climate change that incorporates scientific, social, economic and physiological factors when discussing scientific facts.
  • Facilitate and participate in collaborations and interdisciplinary training that link microbiology and life sciences to the regulatory, market environment and industry workforce. Promote increased diversity among science practitioners and encourage equitable exchanges of ideas and knowledge between scientists.
  • Leverage scientific societies, trade associations and federal and state resources to facilitate dialogues and relationships between basic scientists, funding agencies and industry professionals to build more direct connections between bench science and market needs.

The Academy is making a commitment to broadening scientific understanding about climate change and microbes. The Academy created a 5-year scientific portfolio to focus on understanding the relationship between microbes and climate change and build a scientific framework to inform climate change policies and market innovations. ASM Microbe 2023 will also feature a guest track on the topic of climate change to further the scientific discussion.

Visit the Climate Change Portfolio

Author: Ashley Mayrianne Robbins, MELP

Ashley Mayrianne Robbins, MELP
A. Mayrianne Champagne is a Communications Manager at the National Geographic Society.