The Next Big Thing #10: Gluttons for Greenhouse Gases
Posted by Richard Conniff on December 27, 2013
The nightmare climate scenario is that melting permafrost in the Arctic will unleash massive quantities of methane, a greenhouse gas potent enough to spin the planet into catastrophic and irreversible warming. But researchers have also identified microbes called methanotrophs that proliferate as the permafrost thaws. They consume methane and keep it from entering the atmosphere. So far, scientists haven’t characterized most of these species, much less figured out how they work.
“But if we know what kinds of microorganisms are the first responders,” says Janet Jansson, a microbial ecologist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, “we can learn how to help them. Do they need nutrients? Are there ways we can tweak the environment to get them to grow and do the things we want them to do?”
The bottom line: In the Arctic and elsewhere, Earth’s fate may rest with obscure species we have, until now, tended to dismiss or even despise. And in the end, our long history of waging war on microbes may turn out to have been a misguided attack on our own best hope of salvation.