Microbes may be small but have a big impact on climate change, report says

Bleached coral, Acoropora sp. Photo Courtesy: ASM Microbes and Climate Change Report

University of Hawaii oceanographer at Mānoa, David Karl, co-authored a report that found although microbes may be small, they are having a profound impact on the environment and human health amid climate change.

The report, Microbes and Climate Change: Science, People & Impact, incorporates input from more than 30 experts from a wide range of disciplines. It was published in the American Society for Microbiology (ASM).

Microbes are the main drivers of the elemental cycle and are producers and consumers of the three gases responsible for 98% of the increase in global warming: carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide.

To fully understand how to adapt to climate change, it is important to study how climate change will impact microbes and how they relate to humans and the environment.

“Some say that the very large is achieved by the very small,” said Karl. “Important microbes.”


Since 1988, Karl and his colleagues have tracked changes in marine microbial ecology in response to climate change at UH’s deep-sea observatory, Station ALOHA.


Microbial science can provide invaluable insight into how to adapt to climate change and its flowing effects. From developing alternative fuels to preventing the spread of pathogens, the applications of microbes are broad and far-reaching.

Algae blooms can harm humans and animals. Photo Courtesy: ASM Microbes & Climate Change Report

The World Health Organization identifies climate change as “the greatest health threat facing humanity in 2021,” having a devastating impact on water quality, food security and the global economy. In addition, a recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change found changes in Earth’s climate in every region of the world, noting the unprecedented scale and speed of warming the planet’s surface over the last 200 years.

“The new ASM colloquium report underscores that in our efforts to find solutions to climate change, we, as a society and the scientific community, have new opportunities to use microbes to our advantage,” said Nguyen K. Nguyen, director of the American Academy of Microbiology ASM.


The report details key recommendations for researchers, policy makers and regulators.

Key report recommendations:

  • Emphasize interdisciplinary research focused on understanding how microbial activity and metabolic fluxes change as climate, rainfall and temperature change globally.
  • Provides guidance for experimental design and data collection for studying microbial communities enabling comparison of data across diverse and global ecosystems.
  • Incorporate existing data on microbial diversity and activity in consuming and producing greenhouse gases into Earth climate models to improve current and predictive model performance.
  • Increase research investment to generate knowledge and awareness of the contribution of microbes to the production and consumption of heating gases; incorporate these findings into evidence-based policy and regulatory strategies to address climate change.
  • Deploy improved surveillance and detection of zoonotic and vector-borne diseases in animals and humans, including through next-generation sequencing technologies, and incorporate a One Health approach to address the effects of climate change on people, animals and the environment.

This report is the result of the November 2021 American Society of Microbiology colloquium meeting, which brings together more than 30 experts from various disciplines and sectors who provide diverse perspectives and insights. The American Academy of Microbiology, the honorary leadership group and think tank within the ASM, held a colloquium.

Karl, director of the Center for Microbial Oceanography: Research and Education at the UH Mānoa School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology (SOEST), is also the co-author of the paper, Microbes and Climate Change, Research Prospectus for the Future. It was published this week in mBio.

That mBio the paper builds on concepts discussed at the November colloquium meeting and provides expanded views and opinions on the research needed to fill knowledge gaps.

To learn more about the impact of microbes on climate change, visit the American Society for Microbiology’s Microbiology and Climate Change resource page and read the article, What Microbes Can Teach Adaptation to Climate Change.


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