The Hot Zone

Zombie-like microbes could impact climate change

Posted by Alison Hawkes on February 2, 2011
Category : Climate Science and Scientists

Which species may be most adept to climate change? The answer could very well be microbes. The microscopic critters do something that no other living thing is capable of: long term dormancy.

As Jay Lennon from Michigan State University explains in his latest paper, “Microbial seed banks: the ecological and evolutionary implications of dormancy” in Nature Reviews: Microbiology, when the going gets rough, microbes can just check out and wait for better times.

“There’s this transition region between life and death and maybe this is how it relates to undead and zombie- like organisms,” Lennon says in a video about his work (below).

Microbes are the undead of the living world, as they tend to exist in this in-between state for a good part of the time. In soils, about 90 percent of the microbes are dormant, and nearly half the species, Lennon points out.

Though they’re not active, the microbes still add to the genetic pool and are available as a population boost when necessary, contributing to what Lennon calls “microbial seed banks.” These dormant species can revive in new conditions, lending to the adaptability of microbes in a changing world.

Lennon points out that there is a cost to be a zombie-like. They need special genes and functions to enter into and out of the undead, and in dormancy they still require some energy to keep molecules in a good state of repair so that DNA doesn’t degrade. But all in all, microbes seem to do well by the strategy.

Lennon says these dormant microbes may have an important role to play in climate change, since microbes in general can impact the release of carbon in to the atmosphere through metabolizing elements in the soil.

“When we think about climate change, microbes are pretty integral to the whole process and understanding what’s going to happen under climate change scenarios,” he says.

Lennon adds, “This fundamentally changes the way we think about the contribution of microorganisms to global bio-geo-chemical cycles and potentially how systems would change under shifting climate regimes.”

More research is needed to understand the exact impacts. Here’s a video of Lennon talking about his research into microbes.

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