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MSU scientists put the heat on microbes

March 23, 2020

Hurricanes, floods, drought and fire. Extreme weather events are becoming more frequent as the climate changes and can destroy entire landscapes—both visible and invisible.

Like humans, microbes need disaster response strategies that facilitate the rescue and recovery of their ecologically crucial communities.

But what do microscopic rescue efforts look like, and can humans help?

In a new study, published in a special issue of Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, researchers in the lab of Michigan State University microbial ecologist Ashley Shade put microbes under extreme heat to find out.

Image of long-term experiment in Shade lab
Shade’s lab observed the recovery of microbes for almost a year after being subjected to extreme heat of 60 degrees Celsius. Photo credit: Shade lab.

“We know microbes provide crucial functions for maintaining the health of their ecosystems—they cycle nutrients, carbon and have important feedback with climate change processes,” said Shade, an assistant professor in Department of Microbiology and Molecular Genetics and the Ecology Evolution and Behavior Program, whose research is supported by an National Science Foundation Early CAREER Award. “We want to get a good handle on how their function might change by exploring how quickly microbes recover after the change takes place and what we might we be able to do to manage them back to stability.”

Between 20 and 80 percent of all microbes in the environment exist in a dormant state, like microbial sleeping beauties waiting for the right moment to wake up and function. In fact, dormancy is a wide-spread, bet-hedging strategy against famine and other suboptimal conditions that has evolved separately along every major branch of life. Some microbes can exist in this suspended, but viable, state for thousands of years.

“We know that there are ways microbes recover after a disturbance by replenishing their populations through dispersal through air and water,” Shade said. “What is special about this study is that we looked at the contributions of dormant microbes as well.”

Read more at NatSci and MSU Today.