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New Report: Microbes Play Critical Role in Climate Change

May 1, 2022, 6:30 AM HST
* Updated April 25, 2:29 PM
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Bleached coral. (Photos courtesy of American Society for Microbiology Microbes and Climate Change Report)

A new report co-authored by a University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa oceanographer shows that microbes might be small, but they are highly impactful to environmental and human health amid a changing climate.

The report, “Microbes and Climate Change: Science, People & Impacts,” co-authored by David Karl with UH-Mānoa and more than 30 experts from diverse disciplines, illuminates how microbes can help the planet adapt to climate change. The report was recently issued by the American Society for Microbiology.

“It has been said that the very great is achieved by the very small,” said Karl in a press release. “Microbes matter!”

Algal blooms can endanger humans and animals.

Since 1988, Karl and his colleagues have tracked changes in the ecology of marine microbes in response to climate change at UH’s deep sea observatory, Station ALOHA. According to the press release, as major drivers of elemental cycles and producers and consumers of three of the gases responsible for the majority of increased global warming — carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide — microbes have a pivotal impact on climate change and are, in turn, impacted by it.

“To fully understand how to adapt to climate change, it is critical to learn how our changing climate will impact microbes and how they relate to humans and the environment,” said the press release.

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Karl is director of the Center for Microbial Oceanography: Research and Education at UH-Mānoa’s School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology. He was also an author on the companion paper, “Microbes and Climate Change, a Research Prospectus for the Future,” published in mBio.

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“The microbial sciences can provide us with invaluable insights in how to adapt to climate change and its cascading effects,” the press release said. “From developing alternative fuels to preventing the spread of pathogens, the applications of microbes are vast and far-reaching.”

Key recommendations from the new report include:

  • Emphasizing interdisciplinary research focused on understanding how microbial activities and metabolic flux alter as climate, precipitation and temperatures change.
  • Providing guidance for experimental design and data collection for studying microbial communities that allows for data comparison throughout ecosystems.
  • Incorporating existing data about microbial diversity and activity on consuming and producing greenhouse gases into Earth-climate models to improve the current and predictive performance of models.
  • Increasing research investments to generate knowledge and awareness of the contribution of microbes to the generation and consumption of warming gases and incorporating findings into policy and regulatory strategies to address climate change.
  • Deploying increased surveillance and detection of zoonotic and vector-borne diseases in animals and humans, including through next generation sequencing technologies, and incorporating a One Health approach to addressing climate changes’ effects on humans, animals and the environment.

To learn more about the impact of microbes on climate change, click here and read the article, “What Microbes Can Teach Us About Adapting to Climate Change.”

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