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Microbes Make the Best Climate Engineers

Article written: 1 Feb , 2008
Updated: 26 Apr , 2016
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With the rising threat of global warming, you’d think humans are the best (or worst) climate engineers to arrive on planet Earth. But you’d be wrong. Tiny microbes have been modifying our climate for billions of years, and unless we learn how to work with them, we could be fighting a losing battle to get our greenhouse emissions under control.

For example, humans release tremendous amounts of methane into the atmosphere. But we do this indirectly through our livestock, rice fields and landfill. In each of these situations, it’s actually microbes producing the methane that makes such a potent greenhouse gas. We just give the microbes the environment they need to make the stuff.

In fact, unless we deeply understand how these microbes do their work, we might be fighting a losing battle to control climate change. This is based on a commentary published in the February 2008 issue of Microbiology Today. The article was written by Dr Dave Reay from the University of Edinburgh.

Much of the carbon cycle in the world involves the oceans, which breath carbon dioxide in and out of the atmosphere. But once again, it’s microbes which are taking in carbon from the atmosphere and releasing it again.

The trick, of course, is to learn how to work with them. If scientists can better understand the processes that go on, they could encourage microbes to pull more carbon out of the atmosphere, or break up methane generated in landfills. Plankton are already being used as feedstock for some biofuels, and cyanobacteria could provide hydrogen fuel.

For example, the wetlands of the Earth dump 100 million tonnes of methane into the atmosphere every year. This number would be much higher, but a significant amount is used by methanotropic bacteria before it can escape into the atmosphere. Compare this to the 150 million tonnes delivered directly to the atmosphere by human methods, like rice cultivation.

As we warm the planet, we don’t know what impact microbes might play to slow, or maybe even accelerate our actions.

“The impact of these microbially-controlled cycles on future climate warming is potentially huge,” says Dr Reay. “Microbes will continue as climate engineers long after humans have burned that final barrel of oil. Whether they help us to avoid dangerous climate change in the 21st century or push us even faster towards it depends on just how well we understand them.”

Original Source: Microbiology Today


12 Responses

  1. I think that a particularly interesting thought is to use microbes on other planets like mars or Venus to change the climate.

  2. Kevin says

    Venus is too far gone and Mars no longer has a magnetic field. So for the most part, climate change is a mute point for these two planets.

  3. Steve says

    Try it on Europa, where there is a magnetic field.

  4. Tony Trenton says

    If I remember correctly the Australians delivered iron oxide over an area of the ocean to encourage some green algae to proliferate and absorb CO2. Apparently it was successful.

  5. Tony Trenton says

    Kevin has an important point. Without a magnetic field to protect the astronauts and anything else organic from the radiation. Colanizing Mars has major long term problems when it comes to changing the climate to be more Earth-like.

  6. Jim K says

    I’m not sure what having a magnetic field has to do with the ability/lack there of for climate change.

    Unless I’m missing something, the bigger variable is simply the thickness of the atmosphere. Which is why, if we ever plan to terraform Mars, we’d probably need to guide a fleet of comets into it first, to thicken the atmosphere, and provide a source of water for the surface.

  7. Rev. says

    All nations should adopt the Swedish model when developing landfills… all methane gas is tapped and used as clean energy, by the creation of a utility at each landfill.

  8. Olga says

    Yes. I agree with Rev. All nations could learn a lot from the Swedes. Developed countries need to get creative and use all their incredible amount of scientific knowledge to develop technologies for sustainable living and serve as role models (and share their technologies) with developing nations. What happens when one third of the world’s population in China and India want to live the way we live, in a consumer-driven, disposable, oil reliant society where wants exceed needs?

  9. Tom says

    “…we might be fighting a losing battle to control climate change.”

    My God Man! Are you serious? Do you actually believe we can control climate change. What sort of Sci-Fi world do you live in? The Earth’s climate has been changing for eons and will continue to change. The arrogance of the gullible GW doomsayers has reached astronomical proportions. Somewhere P.T.Barnum is having a good laugh.

  10. Zooball says

    The reason Mars is a poor choice is that without a consistent global magnetic field the solar wind will continually strip away any atmosphere we humans develop there. Mars may have to be entirely colonized with contained systems like domes, underground tunnels, or sealed canyons.

    Back to the subject, I’m not even worried about colonizing Mars when there might not be a 22nd Century for humans on Earth! Worry about other planets after we correct our mistakes on this one. Seriously, I wonder if I’ll even see grandkids because it seems NOBODY in my town even cares about our planet. They have no clue as to what methane can do to our, er, ummm, civilization. Not only do landfills need to be tapped, but also the entire tundra when it warms up.

  11. Kevin M. says

    There’s a great story in the Atlantic this month describing how a warming planet would not be such a disaster. Equatorial countries will become deserts, but the vast northern regions which are now uninhabitable will become quite temperate, including Canada, Alaska, Greenland, Skandinavia and Siberia. There is plenty of land left if we heat up the atmosphere. That’s why certain countries are not worrying very much about warming, and even seem to be welcoming it. Canada and Russia are already fighting over the vast oil fields which may soon become accessible under the melting northern ice cap. We may all be Canadian, Siberians or Greenlanders soon. The North will have a new boom while the Equator burns up.

  12. Kevin says

    Jim K,

    If you don’t understand the need for a magnetic field you need to do some simple reading on the subject. Without a magnetic field to deflect the solar wind you are fighting a losing battle. Any type of atmosphere you create will only exist for a short time until the solar wind rips it away.

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