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Global warming could wipe out microbes that ‘make life possible’

By Tim Radford

Global warming could be about to affect one of the most important communities on the planet: the tiny microbes that make life possible for the rest of creation.

According to new research by scientists in the US and Spain, cyanobacteria are almost everywhere, have been around for the whole of life’s 3.5 billion-year history, and fix nitrogen from the atmosphere to fertilise plants and feed animals.

They are so common, and so numerous, that they form collectives that can be picked up by hand, and be seen even from space. As photosynthesisers, these blue-green algae also deliver the oxygen to keep the animal world on the move.

Ferrari Garcia-Pichel and colleagues report in the journal Science that they examined cyanobacteria in desert soils through the whole of North America.

They found that two species dominated. One, called Microceleus steenstrupii, lives in the hot deserts while the other, M. vaginatus, prefers cold dry places.

The tiny microbes that make life possible for the rest of creation. (Source: Serendigity)

But, of course, the planet is becoming warmer with each decade. “By using our data with current climate models, we can predict that in 50 years, the cyanobacterium that fares better in warm temperatures will push the cold-loving one off our map,” said Professor Garcia-Pichel.

“M. steenstrupii could completely dominate the crusts everywhere in our study area by then. Unfortunately we don’t know much about this microbe or what will happen to the ecosystem in the absence of M. vaginatus.”

“This study tells us we can no longer neglect microbes in our considerations”

The real hazard, for humans and other creatures that depend on cyanobacteria – and that adds up to all life on Earth – is that there is likely to be a knock-on effect on soil fertility, and soil erosion: it is the “living crusts” formed by these microbes that in many places hold the soil together, and sometimes researchers try to combat cases of severe erosion by injecting these cyanobacteria into the dust to act as soil stabilisers.

The finding is ominous: but an omen of what? Once again, researchers have unearthed – to use an appropriate metaphor – evidence of the intricacy of the connections between air, water, rock, temperature, life and climate.

But this same discovery is a reminder of just how little science yet knows about the microbiology of the world beneath our feet. Before this research, nobody had expected cyanobacteria to have divided the deserts into two separate kingdoms, with presumably two separate ecologies.

“Our study is relevant beyond desert ecology”, says Garcia-Pichel. “It exemplifies that microbial distributions and the partitioning of their habitats can be affected by global change, something we’ve long known for plants and animals. This study tells us we can no longer neglect microbes in our considerations.”

This article was produced by the Climate News Network.


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  • sam



    “Swedish climate scientist Pehr Björnbom has recently replicated the work of Dr. Murry Salby, finding that temperature, not man-made CO2, drives CO2 concentration in the atmosphere. Dr. Björnbom confirms Salby’s hypothesis that the rate of change in carbon dioxide concentration in the air follows an equation that only depends on temperature change, detailed in his report Reconstruction of Murry Salby’s theory that carbon dioxide increase is temperature driven [Google translation].”


    • Belgianm

      Google translation of which text exactly? I can’t find work or statements by Pehr Björnbom saying anything like that.

      I’ve seen one press release he signed saying that media misinterpreting publications threaten to undermine researchers credibility. Google translation: “Misinterpreted climate report threatens researchers credibility”
      Are you perhaps misinterpreting something too?

    • jfreed27

      CO2 didn’t initiate warming from past ice ages but it did amplify the warming. In fact, about 90% of the global warming followed the CO2 increase. http://www.skepticalscience.com/co2-lags-temperature.htm

  • Bruce Richardson

    Bacteria can evolve and adapt very quickly. Those fellows have to know that. The gradual temperature increase that we may or may not have over the next century should not be a problem. Those bacteria have adapted to far greater changes in climate over those billions of years than what we are likely to see over the next century.

    • jfreed27

      Gradual? Warming is occurring 50 times faster than in the past. But, hey, I’ll gamble that everything will be just fine. What have we got to lose?

      • Randall Semrau

        LOL….50 times faster than…..the descent into the last Ice Age, from which we are hopefully emerging?
        You should be a comedian!

  • Linux Mint Book

    Well, the net effect on everything will probably be exactly what it was the last time global temperatures rose, around 1400 — that is, precisely none. But please don’t let that interfere with your grant application. We desperately need more scientists being paid to spread hysterical nonsense.

    • jfreed27

      Right. Those grant applications are the key. And you, of course, have good evidence that the applicants must say, to get funds, “in this research we will somehow find evidence that AGW is real, man caused and dangerous”. Only stuff like that, you claim, gets funded. And your evidence is…?

      • Randall Semrau

        Ummm, no. The research results speak for themselves.
        Did you just begin following this topic?

  • jfreed27

    Who loves ya? Front groups have
    received over $100 million in order to generate misinformation and delay in
    facing climate change (http://www.dailykos.com/story/2013/02/15/1187343/-Secret-Fund-Funneled-120-Million-to-Climate-Change-Denial-Groups)

    For example, Charles and David Koch have dumped over 61 million dollars into
    front groups that attack climate science and policies designed to solve global
    warming (http://greenpeaceblogs.org/2012/04/02/koch-brothers-exposed-fueling-climate-denial-and-privatizing-democracy/)

    Many in this anti-science industry got their experience working for Big
    Tobacco. Result? Cancer and heart
    disease continued to spread. In creating doubt about AGW similar techniques are used (http://scienceblogs.com/scientificactivist/2009/04/24/industrys-anti-global-warming/)

    Naturally, much of what we will read in these Comments is the result of that
    $100+ million “investment”.

    Minus those millions, we would be having a very different conversation.

    Instead of fending off an army of flying monkeys, we would be doing the work of
    adults, finding solutions.

    The problem with this hyped up doubt and delay? We fail to address our civilization’s
    greatest problem, which, according to our very best scientific minds
    (http://opr.ca.gov/s_listoforganizations.php), is man made climate change.

    Unfortunately, the results of our delay will be with us for many hundreds of years, as CO2 does not quickly leave our atmosphere and our seas.

    Experts predict trillions of dollars and millions (if not billions) of lives atstake. Each year’s delay to get carbon under control is estimated to cost $600 billion (https://www.commondreams.org/headline/2013/01/14-3).

    And, more importantly, each year hundreds of thousands of lives are taken as a
    result of our changed climate, according to the very conservative World Health Organization..

    Of course, all the top experts in the world (40,000 published scientists) have
    no authority or standing to a paid denier, clearly complicit in the growing destruction.

    The sole purpose their heavily financed misdirection is to make it easy for you to
    shrug your shoulders and simply not to care – though you should, if you care
    about your children.

    It is the job of each of us to urge our leaders to make the best possible
    decisions, which can be accomplished only if we clearly understand our
    situation. And good science, not
    smoke and mirrors, not arm waving, should be the basis.

    So, when you read the comments here, consider the source.