How underground microbes devour carbon emissions

To combat climate change, researchers are looking for ways to absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and store it forever. Crazy ideas range from planting more trees (Earth’s natural carbon sponges) to industrial machine scrubbers. Today, organisms too small to be seen with the naked eye are increasingly present.

Researchers at Pellissippi State Community College have found that microbes buried deep in the earth’s crust help to devour CO2. For example, they discovered that the small but powerful bacteria found in Costa Rica’s hot springs are natural carbon sinks.

Credit: Katie Pratt and the Deep Carbon Observatory

The backstory: There is a carbon cycle deep within the Earth. Driven by the shifting plates of oceanic crust, the natural process unfolds over hundreds of millions of years. Sinking oceanic plates bury carbon deep below the Earth’s surface for long-term storage. Some ascend through erupting volcanoes, while much remains buried – a fact that remains a mystery to scientists, reports Science.

Then, in 2017, scientists started to understand what is happening to this deep carbon. By studying the naturally occurring gases and liquids that escape from more than 20 hot springs in Costa Rica, they discovered that some of the sinking carbon is transformed into rocky. But that did not take into account all the CO2 that had disappeared.

“Is there any evidence that the microbes in these hot springs are affecting the greenhouse gases that come out of them?”

Katherine fullerton

So recently, the same team returned to the crime scene to solve the mystery of what happened to the missing carbon.

What happened : The same team, this time co-led by Katherine Fullerton, a microbiologist at Pellissippi State Community College, returned to the hot springs to analyze the water.

“Our first goal was to try to determine how microbial diversity varies regionally, as previous research tended to focus on one location at a time,” Fullerton said. mentionned in a report. “Second: is there any evidence that the microbes in these hot springs are affecting the greenhouse gases that come out of them? ”

The team found signs of chemical reactions facilitated by living organisms. They determined that communities of microbes must feed on natural carbon from the descending oceanic crust. To confirm their suspicions, the team discovered several species of bacteria with the genes needed to turn CO2 into organic carbon.

What this means for climate change: Using data from hot springs, the team built a computer model that suggests that these microorganisms eat between 2 and 22% of the natural carbon emitted by hot springs, they reported in natural geosciences.

“The little things add up”, Fullerton Told Science.

Oliver Plümper, an expert at Utrecht University in rock-fluid interactions who was not involved in the study, told Science that while 2% is not impressive, 22% is enough to answer questions about the relationship between the Earth’s interior and climate.

Calling this “very exciting,” Plümper adds that these calculations could influence our understanding of long-term climate stability – and how long the planet will support life.

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