Metal-Eating Microbes Who Breathe Methane

Featured Image: Murky pond in Alaska with “rusty” iron-filled sediments. Image courtesy Jessica Buser. Used with permission.

Paper:  Sulfate- and iron-dependent anaerobic methane oxidation occurring side-by-side in freshwater lake sediment

Authors: Alina Mostovaya, Michael Wind-Hansen, Paul Rousteau, Laura A. Bristow, Bo Thamdrup

The table has been set and the food is all prepared. But this is no ordinary dinner party, it’s a microbe party! The guests sit down and proceed to dig into the main course; sulfur, rusty iron, and methane. Curiously, the guests are feeding each other, not themselves! This image seems pretty weird to us humans, but it’s a delight to these microbes. This collaborative method of eating occurs in pond and lake mud all around the world. In a new study, Mostovaya and colleagues describe one such feast in Danish Lake Ørn, that is not only collaborative but may mitigate climate change.

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Carbon to carbonates: capturing CO2 with rocks

Featured image: a field of basalt in Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park (National Park Service, public domain)

Paper: Potential CO2 removal from enhanced weathering by ecosystem respnses to powdered rock
Authors: Daniel S. Goll et al.

In the 2015 Paris Agreement, nations pledged to work toward a common goal of limiting global warming to less than 2°C compared to pre-industrial times. The Agreement doesn’t specify how the signatories should do this, though: levy a carbon tax? Shut down coal-fired power plants? Use a stainless steel straw? According to the best available climate science, we will need to be doing all of the above and then some. In fact, meeting the target of the Paris Agreement will require negative emissions, removing greenhouse gases from the atmosphere via some form of Negative Emissions Technology (NET).

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Highway Maintenance “Drives” Carbon Release in Forests

Featured Image: Forest and highway between Trójmiasto and Gdynia, Northern Poland. Image courtesy Robin Hammam.

Paper: The proximity of a highway increases CO2 respiration in forest soil and decreases the stability of soil organic matter

Authors: Dawid Kupka, Mateusz Kania, Piotr Gruba

There has been a lot of talk about transportation as of late with America’s “Build Back Better Act”.  While these political decisions are partially informed by scientific research around climate change, particularly in the United States (where 30% of greenhouse gas emissions result from transportation by road, rail, and air each year), the negative impacts of transportation infrastructure on the climate and local ecosystems are often lost in political discussions.  In a new study in Scientific Reports, Kupka and colleagues discuss the broader impacts of highway maintenance on nearby forest soil ecosystems, finding that roadways themselves can increase carbon dioxide emissions by disrupting local carbon cycles.

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Buried treasure in the oceans: chemistry of small deep-sea crystals hints at past carbon cycling

Featured image: Crystals of the mineral barite from the deep ocean (Adapted from Kastner (1999)). These crystals precipitated in ocean sediments and are about 9 million years old, similar in age to some of the barite samples from the study discussed here.

Paper: A 35-million-year record of seawater stable Sr isotopes reveals a fluctuating global carbon cycle

Authors: Adina Paytan, Elizabeth M. Griffith, Anton Eisenhauer, Mathis P. Hain, Klaus Wallmann, Andrew Ridgwell

What do ancient ocean sediments and the walls around x-ray machines have in common? One possible answer? Sometimes the mineral barite is an important part of both!  Barite (or barium sulfate) is able to block gamma and x-ray emissions, and therefore is sometimes used in high-density concrete in hospitals and laboratories. In the deep ocean, tiny crystals of barite naturally accumulate on the seafloor over time, particularly in regions ideal for this mineral formation where many decaying remains of organisms sink to the seafloor. The chemistry of this barite can give scientists clues into Earth’s past, which is what Adina Paytan and her colleagues did in this study.

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Microbes, tectonics, and the global carbon cycle

Featured image: Steam rising from a pool in the Aguas Termales area near the base of Rincón de la Vieja volcano in Costa Rica. Courtesy of the Global Volcanism Program, Smithsonian Institution; photo by Paul Kimberly.

Paper: Effect of tectonic processes on biosphere-geosphere feedbacks across a convergent margin
Authors: K. M. Fullerton, M. O. Schrenk, M. Yucel, E. Manini, M. Basili, T. J. Rogers, D. Fattorini, M. Di Carlo, G. d’Errico, F. Regoli, M. Nakagawa, C. Vetriani, F. Smedile, C. Ramirez, H. Miller, S. M. Morrison, J. Buongiorno, G. L. Jessen, A. D. Steen, M. Martinez, J. M. de Moor, P. H. Barry, D. Giovannelli, and K. G. Lloyd

Plate tectonics describes the workings of our planet on the gigantic scale of continents and oceans, moving graduallly over hundreds of millions of years. But the tectonic processes that slowly shape and reshape the whole surface of the Earth also directly influence the lives of some of our planet’s tiniest residents: microbes. And those microbes, in turn, may have a larger effect on Earth’s carbon cycle than previously estimated.

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The future cost of mercury exposure

Featured image: Rice paddy fields in Indonesia by Steve Douglas on Unsplash

Paper: Zhang, Y., Song, Z., Huang, S. et al. Global health effects of future atmospheric mercury emissions. Nat Commun 12, 3035 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-021-23391-7

Methylmercury, the organic form of the element mercury, is everywhere. A common global pollutant, this form of mercury is most commonly consumed by humans in food, and subsequent impacts include heart failure and loss of IQ. Environmental mercury is nothing short of a public health crisis, and while global interventions are rolling out to protect humans from this toxic pollutant, new research published in Nature Communications is showing us that the damage isn’t just in human lives, it’s also in dollars and cents. 

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Tiny organisms’ race to the bottom of the ocean

Paper: Microbial dynamics of elevated carbon flux in the open ocean’s abyss

Authors: Kirsten Poff, Andy Leu, John Eppley, David Karl and Edward DeLong

Cells from blooms of phytoplankton, or tiny plants, can enhance carbon flux all the way down to the deepest parts of the ocean. The authors of this recent study measured the amount of carbon in sinking particles deep in the ocean at a station near Hawaii. Over the course of three years, scientists identified three time periods of unusually high carbon flux, or transport, at this depth, and found that the organisms that made up the sinking particles were significantly different between high flux events and the rest of the time period. The data showed higher abundances of surface-dwelling microorganisms, including phytoplankton, contributing to these particles during high-flux events.

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Cohesive trends in carbon cycling over the last 66 million years

Paper: Reconciling atmospheric CO2, weathering, and calcite compensation depth across the Cenozoic

Featured image: Figure 1 from a related study: Boudreau et al., 2018 – a schematic which illustrates the carbonate/calcite compensation depth (CCD). Just as snow accumulates on mountains above the snowline and melts at lower elevations, white calcium carbonate shells and minerals (the sinking green discs in this image) accumulate on the seafloor above the CCD and dissolve below this depth.

Authors: Nemanja Komar and Richard E. Zeebe

For multiple decades, we have known that temperatures have largely cooled over the last 66 million years (during the Cenozoic, our current geological era). This insight comes from measuring oxygen isotopes in microfossil shells from ocean sediment cores that extend hundreds of meters into the deep ocean seafloor. Slight increases in the heavier oxygen isotope (which contains ten neutrons) relative to the lighter isotope (which contains eight neutrons) in these shells over time indicates cooling. However, it has been significantly more difficult to understand how the long-term geological carbon cycle has been intertwined with this temperature change. Since carbon and climate are inherently connected under modern and projected future climate change, it is crucial to understand these linkages. A new study by Komar and Zeebe expands a multi-faceted geological carbon and climate model to show how geological and geochemical evidence from ocean sediments that initially appears to be incompatible actually tells a cohesive story of carbon cycling and changes over the Cenozoic.

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It’s complicated; deciphering mixed signals of the carbon-climate relationship in Earth’s past

Paper: High-latitude biomes and rock weathering mediate climate-carbon cycle feedbacks on eccentricity timescales.

Authors: David De Vleeschower, Anna Joy Drury, Maximilian Vahlenkamp, Fiona Rochholz, Diederik Liebrand & Heiko Pälike

Featured image: Benthic foraminifera collected from the North Sea in 2011. Image courtesy of Hans Hillewaert, licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

Faced with a rapidly warming world, we all have the same questions on our collective minds: how will climate change restructure Earth and what can we do to adapt to those changes? One thing we do know is that the climate is intimately connected to the carbon cycle. When large amounts of carbon get moved between reservoirs (on land and in the ocean and atmosphere), changes in climate ensue. Currently, carbon stored on land is being moved to the atmosphere through anthropogenic CO2 emissions, causing global warming and its various cascading effects. What’s more, looking back in Earth’s history, researchers have established that moving carbon from the atmosphere to the ocean, or back onto land, has had a cooling effect. Just this past year, researchers from the University of Southampton investigated several factors affecting past carbon-climate connections, offering new understandings that could help address climate action moving forward.

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Muddy waters lead to decreased oxygen in Chesapeake Bay

Featured Image: Plumes of muddy, sediment-laden water at the Chesapeake Bay Bridge near Annapolis, MD. Photo courtesy of Jane Thomas/ IAN, UMCES.

Paper: Seabed Resuspension in the Chesapeake Bay: Implications for Biogeochemical Cycling and Hypoxia
Authors: Julia Moriarty, Marjorie Friedrichs, Courtney Harris

A memorable feature of the Chesapeake Bay, the largest estuary in the USA, is that the water is very murky and looks like chocolate milk. Former Senator Bernie Fowler has conducted public “wade-ins” over the past 50 years in one of the Bay’s tributaries, seeing how deep the water is before he can no longer see his white tennis shoes, and let’s just say it is never very deep. This is because of the high concentrations of sediment, or small particles of sand and organic material, in the water. Besides making it harder for seagrasses to grow and serving as food for the economically-important oyster, sediment impacts the biological processes that determine how much oxygen and nutrients are available in the water for algae and fish.

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