Climate change is about big things: melting ice sheets, rising seas, the feverish temperature of the planet. But scientists say it’s also about little things — namely, microbes. Like all life forms, microbes will feel the impacts of climate change. The way they respond could have huge implications for the rest of us. For instance, microbes will help determine whether natural sources of greenhouse gases rise or fall in a warming world. And they are key to ecological resilience in the face of environmental stress. That’s why a group of scientists issued a consensus statement calling for more research on the topic in this week’s issue of Nature Reviews Microbiology. Ominously, they called it ”Scientists’ Warning to Humanity.” The Times spoke with Victoria Orphan, a microbial ecologist at Caltech who helped write the statement, about why we shouldn’t overlook microbes.
Geobiologist Victoria Orphan stands at the stern of the research vessel Western Flyer, watching her colleagues put the last touches on an unusual spread. Among the offerings: a large turkey leg, an alligator head and bowls of gelatinous agar that resemble consomme. This meal isn’t for the ship’s crew, though. It’s bait. The microbial denizens of Monterey Canyon are far different from many of their surface-dwelling brethren. They make food out of rocks and dead debris and harvest energy from methane that seeps from the ocean floor. To survive in this dark, high-pressure, low-oxygen, low-nutrient environment, they form all kinds of cooperative relationships.
Featuring C-DEBI scientist Victoria Orphan
Victoria Orphan was on a boat off the Southern California coast in 1993 when she asked a graduate student sampling seawater about his research. He stained a sample with fluorescent dye and put it under a microscope. Orphan, then a UC Santa Barbara undergraduate, stared at the dense constellations of glowing microbes.
“It was like looking at the Milky Way,” she said. “It was just an incredible amount of microscopic life. I’ve never looked at a glass of seawater the same way since.”
That was the beginning of a path that put Orphan on the list of 2016 MacArthur fellows. The award comes with a $625,000 no-strings-attached “genius grant” meant to encourage creative scientists, artists and other thinkers who are pushing the boundaries of their fields.