The University of Massachusetts Amherst

Feature Stories

Warming World

Characterizing microbial communities in soil to predict climate change
  • Jeffrey Blanchard and students in office.

Research data generated by Blanchard’s group is part of a national clearinghouse designed to gather and synthesize the impacts of climate change through time and space from 60 ecologically diverse sites across the country.

Decaying leaves on the forest floor might look as disposable as their scientific name detritus implies - but plant litter, colonized by scores of microbial communities, plays a crucial role in regulating the earth’s carbon cycle. UMass Amherst biologist and genome expert Jeffrey Blanchard, above left, and colleagues across New England investigate what’s in our soil to better understand the impact of global warming on microbial communities and the forests they support around the world.

With funding from the Joint Genome Institute of the U.S. Department of Energy and drawing on expertise in biology and ecology, Blanchard and UMass Amherst microbial ecologist Kristen DeAngelis are working with colleagues at the University of New Hampshire and the Marine Biological Laboratory to characterize the microbial communities from three long-term soil warming experiments underway at the Harvard Forest in Petersham, Massachusetts. The studies, ongoing for six, nine, and 20 years respectively, reflect the three distinct phases of projected carbon dioxide emissions of a warming world. The findings will help researchers understand how climate change affects soil microbial community composition and activity over time. The researchers are identifying and classifying the soil microbes using DNA analysis along with RNA sequencing to develop a picture of which microbes contribute to the key ecological processes that impact our world.

"We know the world is heating up. Because of this, the level of plant litter in the soil is decreasing, and with that the dominant microbes are disappearing," Blanchard says.

Plant litter makes up the majority of organic matter in soils, which in turn contributes 75 percent of the carbon found in the ecosystem. About 10,000 microbe species can usually be found in a gram of soil, about the size of a sugar cube. Microbes and other organic decomposing agents consume the litter releasing nutrients into the soil and sending carbon dioxide (CO2) into the atmosphere.

In one experiment developed by Jerry Melillo at the Marine Biological Laboratory, the team runs cables (the same that you would use to warm a football field) underground to keep an isolated plot of land five degrees warmer year round than a controlled plot. “What we're seeing is that in our warmed plot, several of the dominant microbes are decreasing in abundance. So we're changing the structure of the soil community by warming it," Says Blanchard.

While Blanchard’s research is conducted in artificially heated plots, actual warming is occurring in soil all over the world. His involvement with the National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON, Inc.), an independent corporation that allows members of the scientific community a resource to extend their findings to a global network, helps shine light on this fact.

As a NEON field site, the research data generated by Blanchard’s group is added to the national clearinghouse, designed to gather and synthesize the impacts of climate change through time and space from 60 ecologically diverse sites across the U.S., including Hawaii, Alaska and Puerto Rico.

“We will be able to create a long term record to see how things are changing. Working out of the NEON site at Massachusetts’ Harvard Forest allows us to compare our data to emerging NEON data at other sites,” says Blanchard.

Blanchard’s research is currently funded by the National Science Foundation, Department of Energy, Department of Agriculture, Morris Animal Foundation, and industry partner ReCommunity, and extends beyond ecology and the environment to biofuels and life science applications. Blanchard and his team use Clostridium phytofermentans and other newly discovered organisms to develop biofuels from ecologically and economically sustainable plant feedstocks. Their partnership with ReCommunity focuses on converting garbage to biofuels.

Blanchard is also a part of two research clusters housed in the campus’s new Life Sciences Laboratories: the Plant-Microbe Genomic Systems cluster which is developing cost-effective technologies for producing ethanol, alternative fuels and value-added materials from bio-mass and the Cellular Engineering cluster which is developing novel technologies and approaches for understanding and harnessing cellular function for clean energy, pharmaceutical production, drug design and tissue engineering.

As Blanchard notes, “The new Life Science Laboratories create this great collaborative space that cuts across departments and allows us to re-envision what our research can be.”

Ryan Morin, Karen J. Hayes '85 and Sharon Tracey