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Algal blooms can endanger humans and animals. (Photo credit: ASM Microbes & Climate Change Report.)

Microbes may be small, but they are highly impactful to environmental and human health amid a changing climate. The American Society for Microbiology (ASM) issued a new report, Microbes and Climate Change: Science, People & Impacts, co-authored by David Karl, a University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa oceanographer, and more than 30 experts from diverse disciplines, illuminating how microbes can help us adapt to climate change.

As major drivers of elemental cycles and producers and consumers of three of the gases responsible for 98% of increased global warming (carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide), microbes have a pivotal impact on climate change and are, in turn, impacted by it. To fully understand how to adapt to climate change, it is critical to learn how our changing climate will impact microbes and how they relate to humans and the environment.

“It has been said that the very great is achieved by the very small,” said Karl. “Micobes matter!” Since 1988 Karl and his colleagues have been tracking changes in the ecology of marine microbes in response to climate change at UH‘s deep sea observatory, Station ALOHA.

Bleached coral, Acoropora sp. (Photo credit: ASM Microbes and Climate Change Report)

This report is the outcome of ASM’s November 2021 colloquium meeting, which brought together more than 30 experts from diverse disciplines and sectors who provided multifaceted perspectives and insights. The American Academy of Microbiology, the honorific leadership group and think tank within ASM, convened the colloquium.

Karl, who is also the director of the Center for Microbial Oceanography: Research and Education in UH Mānoa’s School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology (SOEST), was a key participant in the colloquium and contributed to the report. He was also an author on the companion paper, Microbes and Climate Change, a Research Prospectus for the Future, published this week in mBio. The mBio paper builds on concepts discussed at the November colloquium meeting and provides an extended view and opinions on research needed to fill in the knowledge gaps.

The microbial sciences can provide us with invaluable insights in how to adapt to climate change and its cascading effects. From developing alternative fuels to preventing the spread of pathogens, the applications of microbes are vast and far-reaching. The report details major recommendations for researchers, policymakers and regulators.

Key report recommendations:

  • Emphasize interdisciplinary research focused on understanding how microbial activities and metabolic flux alter as climate, precipitation and temperatures change globally.
  • Provide guidance for experimental design and data collection for studying microbial communities that allows for data comparison across diverse and global ecosystems.
  • Incorporate existing data about microbial diversity and activity on consuming and producing greenhouse gases into Earth-climate models to improve the current and predictive performance of models.
  • Increase research investments to generate knowledge and awareness of the contribution of microbes to the generation and consumption of warming gases; incorporate these findings into evidence-based policy and regulatory strategies to address climate change.
  • Deploy increased surveillance and detection of zoonotic and vector-borne diseases in animals and humans, including through next generation sequencing technologies, and incorporate a One Health approach to addressing climate changes’ effects on humans, animals and our environment.

This research is an example of UH Mānoa’s goal of Excellence in Research: Advancing the Research and Creative Work Enterprise (PDF) and Building a Sustainable and Resilient Campus Environment: Within the Global Sustainability and Climate Resilience Movement (PDF), two of four goals identified in the 2015–25 Strategic Plan (PDF), updated in December 2020.

For more information on the report, see SOEST’s website.

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