Researchers look to microbes for clues to climate change and future energy


Cyanobacteria.
Cyanobacteria Image: Meir Sussman

13 August 2008

Elucidating how the true masters of planet Earth, microorganisms, have evolved to use energy sources is likely to lead to innovative ways of solving the problems of climate change and energy production, according to the leader of AIMS' marine microbes research team and her colleagues.

Professor Linda Blackall is the chair of the organising committee of the 12thInternational Society of Microbial Ecology (ISME) conference which gets underway at the Cairns Convention Centre, far north Queensland, on Sunday 17 August.

This conference brings together 1,500 delegates including the world's leading experts in the rising field of the ecology of the hidden microbial world.

AIMS is positioning itself at the forefront of Australian research into marine microbes and recently appointed Professor Blackall to head a new research team that is exploring this field. AIMS will have a strong contingent of scientists at the ISME conference.

In a commentary published in a joint issue of the International Society for Microbial Ecology Journal* and the journal Nature (both published by the Nature Publishing Group), Professor Blackall along with Dr George Kowalchuk from the Netherlands Institute of Ecology and Dr Susan Jones of the Nature Publishing Group declared that future climate change scenarios depend to a large extent on the action of microbes, since microbes are centrally involved in the physical processes concerned with the phenomenon, such as the carbon cycle.

Also, their role in future energy is indicated by the fact that a major funder of microbial genome sequencing has been the US Department of Energy. "If we can understand how microorganisms harness and produce energy, perhaps we can start to harness these microbial mechanisms to generate energy for human consumption," according to Professor Blackall and colleagues.

"Microorganisms have ruled for the planet for billions of years," the authors said. "Microbial ecology lies at the heart of any discussion on sustainability. We rely on microorganisms to keep the globe turning and to sustainably maintain it, through the essential involvement of microorganisms in all biogeochemical and elemental cycles of the planet."

The paper calls for urgent action on policy and research to ensure that we are equipped with the knowledge necessary to face the future.

"Microorganisms have evolved to use every energy source available to them, so it is not surprising that researchers have turned to the activities of microorganisms to search for solutions to some of the world's growing energy problems," they said.

One example of how this might work in reality is mentioned in the ISME paper, carried out by James Frederickson from the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, who will be in Cairns for the conference. He works on the bacterium Shewanella oneidensis, which is known to exhibit a huge array of metabolic capabilities. One recent approach has been to examine the evolution and adaptation of these important environmental engineers and potential microbial motors.

Basic research of this nature into the mechanisms of microbial adaptation is expected to yield real answers to some of the biggest questions in science and public policy today. AIMS' research program in this area is tailored to ensure that nationally important issues around marine microbiology are addressed.

The 12thInternational Society of Microbial Ecology conference is being held in Cairns from 17 to 22 August. Visit the conference website for detailed information, including a list of invited expert speakers and their topics:

http://www.kenes.com/isme12/scientific.asp.

*George Kowalchuk, Susan Jones and Linda Blackall, "Microbes orchestrate life on Earth",
http://www.nature.com/ismej/journal/vaop/ncurrent/full/ismej200861a.html

For further information, please contact:

Professor Linda Blackall
AIMS marine microbes team leader/chair of ISME conference committee

Phone:07 4753 4102
Mobile:0407 038 239
E-mail:l.blackall@aims.gov.au

Ms Wendy Ellery ,AIMS Media Liaison
Phone: 07 4753 4409
Mobile: 0418 729 265
E-mail:w.ellery@aims.gov.au

 

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