Five ways ‘germs’ can help move the planet forward

Arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi

Arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi live in symbiosis with plant roots and are able to store up to 70 percent of organic carbon from leaf litter. (Mark Perkins/Flickr)

Society has been hostile towards microbes since the dawn of their discovery. We are taught at a young age to fear their presence, and to euthanize them with hand sanitizer immediately.

If you’ve ever seen a viral doomsday movie, you’ll know that microbes are able to evolve and adapt to their environments very quickly. This is partly due to their quick growth, and partly due to the fact that they can actively pass “good” genes to other microbes around them. However, their adaptation skills can be manipulated in a positive way. Their rapid evolutionary growth also allows scientists to engineer ordinary microbes to do extraordinary things for the environment.

Here are five ways microbes can help us be more sustainable:

Recycling efficiency

Plastic waterbottles
Enough plastic is thrown away each year to circle the earth four times. (Public Domain Pictures)

As bacteria assimilate to a plastic filled world, some have evolved enzymes that break down the chemicals in common plastic and turn it into food. Ideonella sakaiensis is able to break down a thin film of PET plastic in a little over six weeks. These bacteria are so easy to find that even 16 year olds have isolated certain strands of plastic eating bacteria that decompose a toxic plasticizer.

However, this doesn’t mean it’s now OK the throw your plastic water bottle into the ocean. More genetic research must be done to make the enzymes strong enough to break down plastic in larger amounts. Yet, it does give hope for making our recycling practices more efficient.

Electricity generation

Biofuel generators create energy from farm waste. (Shandra Furtado/Planet Forward)

Renewable energy isn’t always clean, in the literal sense of the word. In biogas generators, specialized methanobacterium thrive in vats of cow manure and organic field waste. These are the same bacteria found in the stomachs of ruminants, which produce methane gas through anaerobic digestion. Methane is generally regarded as bad for the environment, but when captured it can be used as a substitution for energy from natural gas. It’s basically composting on steroids.

In Germany, microbes produced 50 terawatt-hours of electricity in 2015. That’s enough to power 500 billion incandescent light bulbs, which is almost 6,000 times the entire population of Germany.

Carbon dioxide fixation

mycorrhizal microbes
Arbuscular mycorrhizal fungus. (Mark Perkins/Flickr)

Through a process called carbon fixation, microbes are able to metabolize greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide and store them as sugar in plant matter. The most common microbes that do this are called mycorrhizal fungi, which live in symbiosis with plant roots to store up to 70 percent of organic carbon from leaf litter.

Scientists are beginning to understand how to nurture plants with specific fungi to maximize carbon fixation. Through specialized mycorrhizal fungi partnerships with trees, Canada is already burying 20 MtCO2e per year, which is the carbon equivalent of almost 22,000 pounds of coal burned.

Pollution cleanup

deepwater oil spill
Skimming oil in the Gulf of Mexico during the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. (NOAA/Flickr)

Scientists are able to ‘program’ bacteria to break down heavy metal pollutants in contaminated soils through a process called bioremediation. This process can be done on-site, and the products are usually harmless – carbon dioxide, water, and cellular biomass.

The practice is fairly common, and it is used to remedy pollution from industrial waste in groundwater to large oil spills. Dechloromonas aromatica is used to break down benzene, a common ground and surface water contaminant, while Pseudomonas putida is used for the bioremediation of naphthalene, a product of petroleum refining.

Fertilizing crops

Bacillus microbes
A confocal micrograph showing Bacillus subtilis. (Fernan Federici and Jim Haseloff/The Cell Image Library).

Droughts, flooding, and temperature changes are all common symptoms of climate change. However, research shows that soil bacteria controls a large part of crop drought resistance and growth efficiency. Bacillus sp. and Paenibacillus sp. microbes most likely have contributed to plant adaptation in harsh conditions, such as dry mountainsides, by aiding in resource acquisition. The efficiency of a plant’s resource acquisition lies heavily on water uptake, so using these microbes on crops can have similar drought resistant effects.

Initiatives in Africa explore the use of a nitrogen fixing bacterium that would help plants with the uptake of nitrogen, the limiting nutrient in most crops. The program involved more than 230,000 small farmers in 11 different countries. Using natural microbes to fertilize makes crop efficiency practices more accessible throughout areas hit hard by climate change.

In many cases microbes are already helping the planet in underrated ways. Technological developments and advanced genetic engineering make microbiological innovation a major player in climate change mitigation.


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