Microbial Shift: How Climate Change Could Turn Carbon Absorbers Into Carbon Emitters

by Mateo Gonzalez
Climate Change Impact on Microorganisms

Tiny single-celled organisms, like the Paramecium bursaria, which are found in water bodies across the globe, can eat and photosynthesize. These microbes serve a dual role in climate change as they can either absorb or release carbon dioxide — a greenhouse gas that contributes significantly to global warming — depending on their lifestyle. This information comes from Daniel J. Wieczynski at Duke University.

Recent research indicates that as global temperatures rise, many microbial communities across the globe, currently serving as carbon sinks, might turn into carbon emitters, potentially hitting climate change tipping points. The findings were published in the British Ecological Society’s journal, Functional Ecology.

The research reveals that with increasing temperatures, mixotrophic microbes — ocean plankton and other single-celled organisms that can transition between acting like plants (absorbing carbon dioxide) and animals (releasing carbon dioxide) — might change from being carbon absorbers to carbon emitters. The study also discovered potential early warning signals for climate change tipping points, although increased nutrient levels in the environment could mask these warnings.

Mixotrophic microbes, which are abundant in freshwater and marine ecosystems and constitute a large part of marine plankton, can flip between photosynthesis and consumption depending on environmental conditions. The researchers from Duke University and the University of California Santa Barbara developed a computer model to simulate how mixotrophic microbes respond to warming conditions. They found that these microbes could change from being carbon sinks to carbon emitters as temperatures rise.

This means that these widespread microbial communities might shift from cooling the planet to warming it as temperatures increase. According to Dr. Wieczynski, the lead author of the study, this conversion could exacerbate global warming by creating a positive feedback loop between the biosphere and the atmosphere.

Dr. Holly Moeller, a co-author from the University of California Santa Barbara, suggests that these microbes could act like ‘switches’ to either curb or amplify climate change. Another co-author, Dr. Jean-Philippe Gibert from Duke University, emphasizes that current climate change models inadequately represent microbial action, highlighting the need for this kind of research to understand the role of biological controls on atmospheric processes.

The research team’s model also detected significant fluctuations in the abundance of mixotrophic microbe communities just before they transition to releasing carbon dioxide. This could potentially serve as an early warning system for climate change tipping points. However, increased nutrient pollution, such as nitrogen from agricultural runoff, could dampen these signals.

The researchers performed simulations across a temperature range of 19 to 23 degrees Celsius, indicating that even a modest rise in global temperatures could trigger these effects. Despite the cautionary note that their mathematical model draws on limited empirical data, the researchers urge further experimental testing to validate their findings.

The research paper, “Mixotrophic microbes create carbon tipping points under warming” by Daniel J. Wieczynski, Holly V. Moeller, and Jean P. Gibert, was published on 31 May 2023. The study was supported by the Simons Foundation, the National Science Foundation, and the U.S. Department of Energy.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about Climate Change Impact on Microorganisms

What does the research say about mixotrophic microbes in relation to climate change?

The research suggests that with rising global temperatures, mixotrophic microbes, which are capable of both absorbing and releasing carbon dioxide, could switch from being carbon sinks to carbon emitters, potentially accelerating climate change.

How could mixotrophic microbes serve as an early warning system for climate change?

The study discovered that just before these mixotrophic microbe communities switch to releasing carbon dioxide, their abundance begins to fluctuate wildly. Monitoring these fluctuations could potentially serve as an early warning system for approaching climate change tipping points.

How does nutrient pollution affect the early warning signals from mixotrophic microbes?

Increased nutrient levels in the environment, typically caused by runoff from agriculture and wastewater treatment facilities, could mute the early warning signals. The range of temperatures over which the tell-tale fluctuations occur starts to shrink until the signal disappears and the tipping point arrives with no apparent warning.

Who conducted this research?

The research was conducted by a team of scientists from Duke University and the University of California Santa Barbara, including Dr. Daniel Wieczynski, Dr. Holly Moeller, and Dr. Jean-Philippe Gibert.

What was the source of funding for this research?

The study was funded by the Simons Foundation, the National Science Foundation, and the U.S. Department of Energy.

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EcoWarriorGurl June 19, 2023 - 11:43 am

It’s high time we took these findings seriously… our actions have consequences, people! I mean, even microbes are being affected by climate change. 🙁

SkepticalThinker June 19, 2023 - 3:24 pm

well that’s it then. We’re doomed. When the little things start working against us, what hope do we have? Just feeling a bit despondent…

GreenThumb88 June 19, 2023 - 6:55 pm

Mixotrophic microbes, huh? Never heard of them until now, but they sound crucial to our ecosystems. We really need to do more to combat climate change!

ScienceFan101 June 19, 2023 - 7:16 pm

Great piece, always good to see more research on this topic. But we need more empirical data though…models are good but actual data is better, amirite?

JohnDoe2023 June 20, 2023 - 8:38 am

man, this stuff is crazy. who knew tiny little bugs could have such a big impact on the planet? climate change is scarier than I thought.

LarryLovesLakes June 20, 2023 - 9:53 am

As someone who lives by a lake, this worries me. Increased nitrogen from agri runoff could mute the warning signs? That ain’t good at all…we need solutions. fast!


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