Researchers at East Lansing’s MSU Study How Microbes Respond to Extreme Conditions

Researchers at Michigan State University in East Lansing are studying how microbes respond to extreme weather events by putting them under intense heat. Such events are becoming more frequent as climate change may destroy entire landscapes.
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microbes and soil in jars
MSU researchers are studying how microbes respond to extreme heat to see how well they can replenish on their own in ecosystems. // Photo courtesy of Michigan State University

Researchers at Michigan State University in East Lansing are studying how microbes respond to extreme weather events by putting them under intense heat. Such events are becoming more frequent as climate change may destroy entire landscapes.

“We know microbes provide crucial functions for maintaining the health of their ecosystems – they cycle nutrients and carbon, and have important feedback with climate change processes,” says Ashley Shade, microbial ecologist and assistant professor in the MSU College of Natural Science’s Department of Microbiology and Molecular Genetics, whose research is supported by a 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 percent and 80 percent of microbes in the environment exist in a dormant state, waiting for the right time to wake up and function. Dormancy acts as a strategy against famine and other suboptimal conditions. Some microbes can exist in dormancy 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 says. “What is special about this study is that we looked at the contributions of dormant microbes as well.”

Using sterilized canning jars filled with soil and microbial communities, the team designed three separate treatments.

The control received no treatment, but the second and third treatments were cooked to 60 degrees Celsius (140 degrees Fahrenheir), the temperature of an underground coal fire in Pennsylvania that Shade has been studying for six years. After cooling, the second treatment was given dispersed cells from the control jars to boost recovery.

“We reproduced what would happen in the environment after a disturbance where dispersal is most likely from the next neighborhood over,” Shade says. “We used just a tiny bit of it, not comprising a substantial volume, and the microbes grew after the disturbance subsided, showing a little dispersal can go a long way.”

The third treatment had no assistance. The team watched the jars to see what role dormant microbes played in returning the microbial community to a healthy, stable state.

“What we found was that both reactivation and dispersal contributed to how microbes respond to the extreme event,” Shade says. “This is an important finding because it suggests that it is not just outside cells rescuing the population but also dormant microbes in the disturbed environment that reactivate and support recovery.”

The nearly yearlong experiment was not long enough to see the communities of microbes fully recover.

“This experiment gives us another strategy to manage microbial communities,” Shade says. “Think about taking antibiotics for an ear infection that, as a side effect, kills beneficial microbes in the gut. Dispersal might be analogous to eating yogurt to recover those beneficial microbial functions, but another strategy could be to encourage the already existing, viable gut microbes to wake up and contribute to healthy functionality.”

Rousing dormant microbes and understanding why they go into dormancy is an area of active research.

“Controlling dispersal in the environment is hard,” Shade says. “Microbes can travel through water, the air, on insects and inside insect guts, and by hitchhiking on other animals as well. But controlling when microbes wake up and go to sleep could be another interesting strategy for managing them to support a healthy environment as we face a changing climate. One day, we may be able to wake up local microbes to help environments recover even faster after extreme events.”

The study was published in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B.

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