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Can controlling microbial energetic scaling help climate change?

Microorganisms’ ability to use energy efficiently in various environmental conditions has consequences for the global climate and carbon cycle.

Chilean scientist plans to clean up mining with 'metal eating' bacteria
Chilean biotechnologist Nadac Reales shows a nail and screw inside a jar with metal-eater bacteria in her laboratory at a mining site in Antofagasta - Copyright AFP -
Chilean biotechnologist Nadac Reales shows a nail and screw inside a jar with metal-eater bacteria in her laboratory at a mining site in Antofagasta - Copyright AFP -

Scientists have uncovered a new formula provides key to predicting microbial growth. The discover may have implications for assessing climate change, as well as advancing microbiology more generally. The formula has been derived by combining thermodynamics, life sciences to predict microorganism growth.

Microbial cell process that generate mass, energy, information transfer and cell-fate specification are seamlessly integrated through a complex network of cellular constituents and reactions. This has been unpicked through complex modelling.

Central to the research is an understanding of how mass and energy conversion are tightly coupled by scaling laws relating the thermodynamic efficiency to the electron donor uptake rate. This process also affects the microbial growth yield.

What has startled the researchers is how the results appear to be universal, in that they apply across microbial species and metabolic pathways and pave the way for a general thermodynamic theory of microbiological systems.

By microbial thermodynamics, this refers to a linear relationship that exists between microbial growth yield and the free energy of aerobic and anaerobic (respiratory and/or fermentative) metabolism. This includes the metabolism of compounds such as glucose, ethanol, acetate, lactate and others.

Just as with the combustion engine, microorganisms lose efficiency when they operate faster (that this their metabolic rates increases). This is significant since the ability of microorganisms to use energy efficiently in various environmental conditions has consequences for the global climate and carbon cycle. The outcome may also be of importance for biotechnological applications that could address global warming.

This stems from understanding of how microbes grow under changing environmental conditions. This answer could be central to predicting not only the impact of changes in climate and land use on soils and ecosystems, but further as to how soils, through carbon sequestration, may help mitigate global warming.

It may be possible, one day, to pinpoint a certain environmental niche and to manipulate the microorganisms present in soil to become more efficient and thus to store more carbon in the soil – a form of microbial carbon capture.

Soil represents an important focal point for a carbon capture strategy. Most of the Earth’s carbon lies in rocks and kerogens (from which petroleum and natural gas forms), with the rest in ocean waters and in soil.

The research appears in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, with the research titled “Energetic scaling in microbial growth.”

Written By

Dr. Tim Sandle is Digital Journal's Editor-at-Large for science news. Tim specializes in science, technology, environmental, and health journalism. He is additionally a practising microbiologist; and an author. He is also interested in history, politics and current affairs.

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