Irvine, Calif., April 26, 2010 The physiology of microbes living underground could determine the amount of carbon dioxide emitted from soil on a warmer Earth, according to a study published online this week in Nature Geoscience.
Researchers at UC Irvine, Colorado State University and the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies found that as global temperatures increase, microbes in soil become less efficient over time at converting carbon in soil into carbon dioxide, a key contributor to climate warming.
Microbes, in the form of bacteria and fungi, use carbon for energy to breathe, or respire, and to grow in size and in number. A model developed by the researchers shows microbes exhaling carbon dioxide furiously for a short period of time in a warmer environment, leaving less carbon to grow on. As warmer temperatures are maintained, the less efficient use of carbon by the microbes causes them to decrease in number, eventually resulting in less carbon dioxide being emitted into the atmosphere.
"Microbes aren't the destructive agents of global warming that scientists had previously believed," said Steven Allison, assistant professor of ecology & evolutionary biology at UCI and lead author on the study. "Microbes function like humans: They take in carbon-based fuel and breathe out carbon dioxide. They are the engines that drive carbon cycling in soil. In a balanced environment, plants store carbon in the soil and microbes use that carbon to grow. The microbes then produce enzymes that convert soil carbon into atmospheric carbon dioxide."
The study, "Soil-Carbon Response to Warming Dependent on Microbial Physiology," contradicts the results of older models that assume microbes will continue to spew ever-increasing amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere as the climate continues to warm. The new simulations suggest that if microbial efficiency declines in a warmer world, carbon dioxide emissions will fall bac
|Contact: Cathy Lawhon|
University of California - Irvine