Microbiology’s DeAngelis Co-authors Report on Climate Change and Microbes

Most people think of fossil-fuel combustion when they think of climate change, but the Earth’s carbon cycle is enormously complex, and to get the best idea of what the future may hold for the planet, we need a better understanding of the way that carbon moves between the planet and the atmosphere and back again.

One of the major players in this story is the microscopic microbe, and a recent report by the American Society for Microbiology—for which Kristen DeAngelis, UMass Amherst professor of microbiology served as co-author—has defined the top ten research questions that the microbiology and climate science community should focus on studying to effectively incorporate microbial processes into climate models.

Kristen DeAngelis
Kristen DeAngelis

The report, “Microbes in Models: Integrating Microbes into Earth System Models for Understanding Climate Change,” is focused on helping climate modelers accurately incorporate changing microbial activity as the Earth warms and how this change will affect the carbon cycle.

DeAngelis’ role was to help detail the challenge of “microbial evolution.” 

“The idea,” says DeAngelis, “is that models of carbon cycling and climate change project decades into the future; currently, modelers assume that current microbial parameters remain static.”

A parameter in a model is a mathematical estimate of how a microbial process might respond to a change in climate. For example, how microbial respiration would respond to a change in temperature.

“However,” DeAngelis continues, “my research at the Harvard Forest has shown that microbial traits are adaptive to climate change over decades, and this allows us to estimate how these parameters could shift with climate change. This is also significant because evolutionary adaptation due to climate change is irreversible, creating new traits and new model parameters.”