Micro-organisms getting affected by climate change

Micro-organisms are being dictating the global climate since ages. Microbial processes play a major role in the global fluxes of the basic biogenic GHGs (that are carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide) as both users and producers as well as in nutrient cycle and are likely to show a rapid response to climate change.

In addition they also have a potential hand in biodegradation/ biodeterioration, food toxication/ spoilage, the causative and controlling agents of several diseases and last but not the least in biotechnology. Owing to their versatile nature, microbes can be set for work in variety of ways: from making life saving drugs to biofuels production, from mitigating pollution to producing/ processing different foods and drinks and what not.

However, since the microbes live in a diverse community interacting with other organisms and environment, it becomes difficult to predict whether the impact shown by them on climate change has a negative or positive feedback.  

Climate change on one hand is a hot topic and on the other hand global warming is a big concern. Microbes could respond both positively and negatively to temperature hence proving them an important component of climate change models. Thus, microbial research is required in ameliorating the warming trajectory and cascading effects resulting from heat, droughts and severe storms. This article reflects a brief summary of what is known regarding microbial responses to climate change in the major ecosystems: terrestrial, ocean and urban.

Terrestrial environments

Even though the soil microbes have an essential roles in regulating the Earth’s climate by having a control on the turnover of the soil organic matter, our knowledge of how soil microbes are being affected by climate change and in turn are regulating Earth’s climate is very restricted. A number of research studies that are based on topsoil suggest that climate warming is leading to divergent succession of grasslands including reduction in microbial diversity, accelerating microbial temporal scaling and lowering respiratory temperature sensitivity.

Both, theoretical and empirical perspectives reveal that the impacts of climate change on the microbes present in the soil could show a substantial variation across different ecosystems. The primary reason behind this could be the enormous spatial heterogeneity that terrestrial ecosystem possess in terms of climate, plant diversity and its composition, the microbial composition and its structure as well as the physics and chemistry behind soil formation over that area.    

Ocean environments

Globally, oceans cover approximately 70% of the planet having an average depth of nearly 4,000m. Oceans contribute critically to global climate dynamics by absorbing more than 90% of the heat that accumulates in the atmosphere. Since the beginning of industrial revolution, oceans have absorbed nearly 25% of the carbon dioxide which has consequently leaded to their acidification, stratification and probably deoxygenation too. Marine heatwaves in the past two decades have occurred with increased frequency and time duration in majority of the ocean basins and are predicted to see an increase as a result of anthropogenic climate change. The anomalous high sea surface temperature for the prolonged periods has resulted in the mass mortalities of marine creatures especially photosynthetic micro-organisms. Also, continuous habitat alterations, as a result of marine heatwaves are turning out as threat to global biodiversity and force the ocean ecosystem to alter into less desirable habitat with overall lower resilience for future changes. A detailed study and further research on microbial ecology of marine heatwaves could be a potential component for scientists studying the marine ecosystem.

Urban environments

The advancement of megacities with huge carbon-footprints is the reason behind the feedback loops that aggravate the negative consequences of climate change, as in disease outbreaks. An influencing economic response could be the converting the greenhouse gases into feedstock within a circular economy. Here, the resources being recovered from wastes could be used as feedstock for renewable energy. 

Microbial mitigation

A better understandings of microbial mitigation could ease underpin the design of measures in mitigating and controlling climate change and its consequences. For an instance, in agriculture, an idea of ecophysiology of micro-organisms that bring out the reduction of toxic nitrogen oxide to harmless nitrogen gives options for mitigating emissions. Manipulation of rumen micro-biota and breeding programs that could target host’s genetic factors in order to change the microbial community responses might be amongst the few possibilities for reducing methane emissions from cattle. In addition, fungal proteins could be an option to replace meat for lowering the dietary carbon-footprints.   


Micro-organisms have a major contribution in carbon sequestration, more particularly the marine phytoplankton which is known to fix net CO2 in equal amount as the terrestrial plants.

Micro-organisms have a great contribution in the rate of climate change as well as they contribute immensely to its effective mitigation. Perhaps the simplest and the clearest evidence of how these organisms have a role in atmospheric change was the oxygenation of the Earth’s atmosphere in the early epochs of geologic history. 

As microbes adapt to the warming world, they could directly affect the human well-being through their patterns. The trio of relationships among the microbes, the climate change action and the well being of mankind requires more of research and collaboration across the disciplines to address complicated issues. 

Written By:

Aakansha Raj

Aakansha holds a master's degree in biotechnology and is currently working as a research scholar. An avid reader, Aakansha finds keen interest in reading and writing on areas related to clean energy and zero carbon emissions.

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