(DOE/Joint Genome Institute press release via EurekAlert, 6 November 2011) -- WALNUT CREEK/BERKELEY, Calif. - From the North Pole to the Arctic Ocean, the frozen soils within this region keep an estimated 1,672 billion metric tons of carbon out of the Earth's atmosphere. This sequestered carbon is more than 250 times the amount of greenhouse gas emissions attributed to the United States in the year 2009. As global temperatures slowly rise, however, so too do concerns regarding the potential impacts upon the carbon cycle when the permafrost thaws and releases the carbon that has been trapped for eons. Like so many of the planet's critical environmental processes, the smallest players—microbes—have the most significant influence over the eventual outcome.
To answer this question, researchers from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Joint Genome Institute (JGI), the Earth Sciences Division (ESD) within Berkeley Lab, and the U.S. Geological Survey collaborated to understand how the microbes found in permafrost respond to their warming environment. Among the findings, published online November 6 in the journal Nature, is the draft genome of a novel microbe that produces methane, a far more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. This microbe, not yet named, lives in the permafrost, and was assembled out of the collection of genomes—the metagenome—isolated from the frigid soil. The assembly challenge is similar to building one complete jigsaw puzzle from a large collection of pieces from many different puzzles.
"The permafrost is poised to become a major source of greenhouse gases as the temperature in the Arctic is expected to increase dramatically compared to the expected temperature increase in many other regions of the world," said ESD's Janet Jansson, corresponding author and initiator of the study (first supported by a grant to her from DOE Laboratory Directed Research and Development funds). "By applying metagenomics to study microbial community composition and function, we can help to answer questions about how the currently uncultivated and unstudied microbial species residing in permafrost cycle organic carbon and release greenhouse gases during thaw," Jansson said. "This will provide valuable information that could lead to improved carbon cycle models and eventual mitigation strategies." ...
The researchers identified many genes involved in carbon and nitrogen cycling in the metagenomic data, and found that their levels of abundance shifted in response to their thawing habitat. "These detailed analyses reveal for the first time the rapid and dynamic response of permafrost microbial communities to thaw," they concluded. "The thaw-induced shifts that we detected directly support conceptual models of carbon and nitrogen cycling in arctic soils, in which microbes play a central role in greenhouse gas emissions and destabilization of stored permafrost carbon."
Posted by Amanda Graham – 6 November 2011; 9:03:04 PM – Permalink
Tagged: Arctic, News, Research