Microorganisms are the most diverse and dominant organisms on the planet and are vital for ecosystem functioning. However, most of them cannot yet be cultured in the laboratory.
Microbial processes have a central role in the global fluxes of the key greenhouse gases carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide, and these processes are likely to respond rapidly to climate change.
An improved mechanistic understanding of microbial controls of terrestrial greenhouse gas fluxes is essential to improve the prediction of climate models.
New and emerging molecular tools are now available to quantify the diversity of uncultivable microorganisms and their metabolic processes, which will help to improve our manipulation of their feedback responses to climate change.
There is huge potential to manage and manipulate microbial processes to mitigate climate change by reducing greenhouse gas emissions from terrestrial ecosystems.
To achieve this, an interdisciplinary approach is required that includes microbial ecology, environmental genomics, soil and plant science, and ecosystem modelling.
Microbial processes have a central role in the global fluxes of the key biogenic greenhouse gases (carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide) and are likely to respond rapidly to climate change. Whether changes in microbial processes lead to a net positive or negative feedback for greenhouse gas emissions is unclear. To improve the prediction of climate models, it is important to understand the mechanisms by which microorganisms regulate terrestrial greenhouse gas flux. This involves consideration of the complex interactions that occur between microorganisms and other biotic and abiotic factors. The potential to mitigate climate change by reducing greenhouse gas emissions through managing terrestrial microbial processes is a tantalizing prospect for the future.
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The authors thank C. Campbell, G. Grelet and C. Macdonald for detailed discussions and comments on the manuscript. P.S. holds a Royal Society Wolfson Research Merit Award.
The authors declare no competing financial interests.
- Radiative forcing
A measure of the influence that a factor has in altering the balance of incoming and outgoing energy in the Earth–atmosphere system. It is an index of the importance of the factor as a potential climate change mechanism.
Of an organism: able to use organic compounds as nutrients to produce energy for growth.
Of an organism: able to synthesize organic carbon from the fixation of inorganic carbon (for example, by photosynthesis or chemosynthesis).
- Dissolved inorganic carbon pool
The sum of inorganic carbon in solution.
- Net primary production
The part of the total energy fixed by autotrophic organisms that remains after the losses through autotrophic respiration.
The process by which methane is produced by microorganisms (mainly archaea).
Of an organism: able to use methane as a nutrient to produce energy for growth.
The conversion of NH3 into a more oxidized form such as nitrate or nitrite.
The reduction of oxidized forms of nitrogen to N2O and dinitrogen.
- Reactive nitrogen
Nitrogen in a form that can undergo biological transformations, such as nitrite and nitrate.
Soil that remains permanently frozen.
- Recalcitrant carbon
A form of carbon that is resistant to microbial decomposition owing to its chemical structure and composition.
An area dominated by deep organic soils.
- Water table
The level at which the groundwater pressure is the same as the atmospheric pressure.
- Arable land
Land that is used for growing crops.
The conversion of organic carbon into inorganic forms, mainly CO2.
Land that has grass as the dominant vegetation.
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Singh, B., Bardgett, R., Smith, P. et al. Microorganisms and climate change: terrestrial feedbacks and mitigation options. Nat Rev Microbiol 8, 779–790 (2010). https://doi.org/10.1038/nrmicro2439
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