Predicting climate change can be tricky, in part because there is so much that we just don't know. But new research on microbes and viruses in Sweden's thawing permafrost – aka a thick subterranean layer of soil that has remained completely frozen for two years or more – may hold some answers. The results have been published in Nature, Nature Microbiology, and the ISME Journal.
"Because of global climate change, huge amounts of permafrost are rapidly warming. To microbes, they’re like freezers full of juicy chicken dinners that are thawing out," Virginia Rich, an assistant professor of microbiology at The Ohio State University and study author, said in a statement.
But these microbes aren't just benefiting from climate change – they are actively shaping it, and they are doing this through their consumption and production of the gas methane.
"In many cases, microbes take advantage of this situation to chew up what’s in the permafrost and breathe out methane. That methane really packs an environmental wallop, with 33 times the climate warming power of carbon dioxide," Rich added.
All this means that if we want a climate change model that is as accurate as it can possibly be, it is crucial to work out how much methane could be released into the atmosphere. And that means figuring out which microbes are involved and how they will respond to a warmer, wetter climate.
Or, as Rich puts it, "To do a better job at predicting what will happen in the coming decades we need more information about the key players."
To work out who these keys players are, researchers from Ohio State and nine other organizations with interests ranging from microbiology to climate modeling, are collaborating on a project called the IsoGenie Project. They hope to improve scientific understanding of how microbes and geochemistry connect.
So far, they have recovered 1,500 microbial genomes and more than 1,900 new viral populations from the soil. Not only is that 100 times the microbial genomes previously available, it is every single known viral population for this environment. More than a third of those viruses could be linked to the microbes they affect, essentially creating a "roadmap" that can help us understand their part in food chains.
The researchers were also able to discover the capabilities of the microbes by examining their genomes.
“It’s like now we have not only their fingerprints but also their resumes, to know both who they are and what they are capable of," said Rich.
She hopes this new information will enable climate change scientists to make more accurate forecasts, which will, in turn, provide humanity with a more accurate timetable for climate action.
There is also a small sliver of a silver lining, the researchers point out. Some microbes (methanotrophs) actually eat up the methane before it hits the air. This may mean parts of the soil can be "fertilized" with the helpful bacteria to help mitigate some of the more harmful effects.