Secret Silent Source of Climate Change Revealed

Bacteria were the first life-form on Earth and may be the last, if climate change meets worst-case scenarios. In fact, the bacteria themselves may contribute to their ultimate triumph. As the ambient temperature grows hotter, bacteria breathe faster, which releases more carbon dioxide, which can be expected to accelerate climate change, a new paper projects.

The study, “Community-level respiration of prokaryotic microbes may rise with global warming,” was published Wednesday in Nature Communications by Thomas Smith et al.

Don’t we breathe faster when it gets hotter? Yes, all organisms do. But in bacteria, that effect is on speed. They deviate upwards from the average. Bacterial respiration responds more strongly to temperature than complex organisms, including plants, fungi and animals, the paper explains.

All bacteria and all archaea (which used to be called archaebacteria) are collectively called “prokaryotes.” These differ from eukaryotes, which are every other known form of life on the planet, by having their DNA loose in the cell, not encapsulated in a cellular nucleus. Free DNA is the archaic condition. An intriguing if presently irrelevant factoid about archaea is that many are extremophiles, thriving in usually inhospitable conditions such as hypersaline lakes like the Dead Sea; the deepest trenches of the oceans; ice; boiling hot springs, and so forth.

Forecasting weather, global warming, sea level rise, etc., requires factoring in as many parameters as necessary. But these systems are horribly complex and the number of parameters practically infinite. Theoretically, the more parameters we identify and factor into the models, the more reliable the models should be. (Of course, there is always the risk that a newly noticed parameter is so weighty that it causes skewing until balanced by other newly noticed parameters.)