‘Even microbes at risk from climate change’

June 4th, 2008 - 1:00 pm ICT by IANS  

Washington, June 4 (IANS) Not just humans, climate change will also impact the microscopic world of bacteria, fungi and other microbial populations that support life on Earth. “Microbes perform a number of critical functions for ecosystems … we are only starting to understand the impact that global climate change is having on them,” said Kathleen Treseder of the University of California.

Treseder studied the effect of rising temperatures and fungi on carbon stores in Alaskan boreal forests, one area of the globe that is experiencing greater warming than others.

“There is a lot of frozen dead material under the snow pack. There is as much carbon trapped in the soil of northern ecosystems as there is carbon in the atmosphere. It is a big unknown what is going to happen if these environments heat up,” said Treseder.

She started her research with the hypothesis that an increase in temperatures would lead to increased decomposition by fungi.

Since one by-product of decomposition is carbon dioxide, rising temperatures should result in its greater release from the soil. What she found was that nitrogen levels in the soil increased as temperatures rose, which tends to suppress fungal decomposition rates.

“In reality as temperatures increase we tend to see greater nitrogen availability in the soil. Nitrogen suppresses activity and diversity. What we end up seeing is less carbon dioxide production from fungi as temperatures increase in northern ecosystems,” said Treseder.

Rising temperatures are also having an effect on snow pack and glaciers and that could be detrimental to the communities of micro-organisms living below them.

“As global temperatures rise and glaciers retreat, these microorganisms lose their habitat. They will probably go extinct before we can study them and get a better idea of their contributions,” the study concluded.

“It really does look like microbes are sensitive to global changes. We are just not quite sure how they will respond,” said Treseder.

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