We Risk the Fate of Humanity by Ignoring How Important Microbes Are to Climate Change, Scientists Warn

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Students protest against climate change on March 15 in Rome, Italy. Alessandra Benedetti/Getty

A group of scientists have issued a "warning to humanity," stressing that we can't afford to forget the part microbes—tiny organisms that live everywhere on Earth—play in climate change.

The life forms which have inhabited our planet for at least 3.8 billion years include microscopic bacteria, single-celled organisms called archaea, fungi, viruses and minute plants and animals. They live everywhere on Earth, from our digestive systems to the air and the Earth's subsurface, where they are thought to be totally alone.

Some 33 scientists across fields including environmental microbiology and microbial ecology from thirty-five research institutions in eight countries published a consensus statement in the journal Nature Reviews Microbiology.

While a lot of focus is given to how habitats, and comparatively larger animals and plants might be devastated by rising global temperatures, the potential fate of microbes is largely ignored, the scientists said.

But it would be a mistake not to factor in how microorganisms—which give off but also gobble up greenhouse gases, affect global temperatures—as well as how this process might harm them, they wrote. Microbes must be at the heart of climate change policy, urged the experts.

The statement covers areas from the food web, the Earth's subsurface, to infectious disease.

For instance, microbes make up as much of 90 percent of marine creatures. These dinky organisms in the ocean take out half of the net amount of carbon dioxide removed from the Earth's atmosphere biologically each year, while plants remove the other half, co-signatory Professor Rick Cavicchioli of the School of Biotechnology and Biomolecular Sciences, University of New South Wales, Sydney, told Newsweek.

On the other hand, methane is produced by microbes inside farm animals like cattle, sheep and goats, which is released into the atmosphere when they burp.

While all this is happening, the permafrost is melting. "When the areas starts to warm up and microbes become increasingly active, they release carbon dioxide and methane to the atmosphere," said Cavicchioli.

And fossil fuels such as oil, gas and coal form over millions of years as a result of biological matter being processed and transformed by microorganisms.

Asked why microbiologists have chosen this moment to publish their statement, co-signatory Cavicchioli said: "Action is required immediately to address anthropogenic climate change."

"Microorganisms are the support system of the biosphere and are so critical to achieving an environmentally sustainable future that ignoring them risks the fate of humanity."

"However, society and decision makers tend to have a shallow understanding of microbes. Consensus Statements only come about when there is recognition of a sufficient need to emphasize the importance of a specific topic."

"The microscopic majority can no longer be the unseen elephant in the room—the impact of climate change on all animal (including human) and plant life totally depends on the responses of microorganisms—without understanding the impact of microbes on climate change and the impact of climate change on microbes, we compromise the capacity to achieve an environmentally sustainable future."

He continued: "All visible life forms including humans, other plants and animals, not only interact with microbes every day and throughout their life spans, but require them in order to live healthy lives."

Dr Jae-Llane Ditchburn, lecturer in Molecular Biology at the University of Cumbria, who was not among the signatories, said she agrees with the warning.

She told Newsweek: "This consensus statement is a very welcome one at this point in time. It is not new, in fact scientists have been pushing for this earlier on, since the 90s.

"People should recognize the importance of microorganisms in climate change and understand that climate change also affects them. We are interconnected with microorganisms much more than we realize—in the food we eat, things we do."

Ditchburn pointed to the example of an infant coming into contact with important bacteria from the mother's gut during a natural delivery.

There are a number of things you can do to help prevent climate change, Ditchburn said. She advised choosing environmentally friendly transportation, like cycling or car-sharing, healthy eating including by growing vegetables; and switching to renewable energy. "Consume less, buy less," she said.

Mirroring the message of the signatories, she said: "as key stakeholders in the policy process, people should increase their awareness on climate change and microorganisms.

"Read up on the topic, exchange ideas with like-minded people, join a recycling group. It's always beneficial to be informed and never too late to start learning about climate change issues and how it affects us all."