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Why do we have to talk about microbes when we talk about climate change

Although we do not see them, microorganisms are everywhere and are part of fundamental processes for the functioning of the world as we know it. In fact, primitive bacteria were the first to release oxygen and change the composition of the atmosphere in which we breathe today.

Our body is full of microorganisms – “we are a bag of microbes”, as the biologist Lynn Margulis used to say – and this microbiome helps the correct performance of the functions of our organism. These very small beings have a lot of influence on the health of man and other living beings, impacts on agriculture, world food and industry. They are capable of colonizing environments that no other form of life reaches and, ultimately, they are everywhere. A work published in the journal PNAS in 2016 estimated that on Earth there are a million million species of different microbes, and that we also do not know 99.999% of this biodiversity.

It seems obvious, therefore, that all changes that occur on a global scale are going to affect the microbial community, and it is also clear that microbes must be taken into account when making predictions about the consequences. Yet these are the great outcasts in the study of climate change. We talk about its consequences on flora and fauna, but we do not include microorganisms in this equation.

For this reason, a team made up of more than thirty microbiologists from nine different countries has called on the international scientific community to stop ignoring these life forms in studies related to the climate emergency. Scientist’s warning to humanity: microorganisms and climate change is the title of the article just published in the journal Nature Reviews Microbiology.

With this statement, the researchers intend to draw attention to the importance of microbes: how they can influence climate change and how they will be affected by it. They claim the need to include microorganisms in these investigations, increase the development of innovative technologies and raise awareness in classrooms on this issue.

“Microorganisms, which include bacteria and viruses, are life forms that are not seen on conservation websites,” explained Rick Cavicchioli, a researcher at the University of UNSW Sydney and leader of this global appeal. “They are the support of other higher life forms and their importance is critical for the regulation of climate change .”

Some examples of the importance of microorganisms

It is estimated that 90% of the biomass in the oceans is microbial. In them, the phytoplankton take energy from the sun and trap carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, as well as being the base of the food chain and sustenance of the rest of life forms.

Another example that scientists give refers to the microscopic algae that live under the ice sheets of Antarctica, the basis of many food chains. As the ice melts, many of these life forms disappear, and with them goes an important source of food for other species. “Climate change is starving our oceans,” explained Cavicchioli.

And if we go to terrestrial ecosystems, we are in the same. “In these environments, microbes release a number of important greenhouse gases into the atmosphere (carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide), and climate change is causing these emissions to increase,” says Professor Cavicchioli.

In addition, climate change is also favoring the spread of pathogenic microbes that cause disease in animals – including humans – and plants. “Climate change also expands the number and geographic range of vectors, such as mosquitoes, that contain pathogens. The end result is the increased spread of the disease and serious threats to global food supplies,” says the expert.

Microorganisms must have more prominence

In their statement, the scientists ask researchers, institutions and governments to commit to greater microbial recognition to mitigate climate change. “There is a great need to study microbial responses to climate change and to include microbe-based research in policy development and management decisions, ” says Professor Cavicchioli.

Furthermore, research on climate change that links biological processes with global geophysical and climatic processes should take the microbial variable more into account. “This goes to the heart of climate change, so if microorganisms are not considered, it means that the models will not be able to be generated properly and the predictions could be inaccurate, ” says Professor Cavicchioli. “The decisions that are made now affect humans and other forms of life, so if the microbial world is not taken into account, a very important component of the equation is being lost,” the scientist concluded.

A form has been made available on the website of the School of Biotechnology and Biomolecular Sciences at the University of Sydney, inviting scientists and organizations to join, and where more information about the appeal can be found.

Photos: Rick Cavicchioli, UNSW Sydney

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