Climate change not only harms humans, but also affects the normal function performed by bacteria, fungi and viruses, scientists have revealed.
Though it is not entirely certain what those effects will be, but they could be significant and will probably not be good, according to researchers at the 108th General Meeting of the American Society for Microbiology in Boston.
"Microbes perform a number of critical functions for ecosystems around the world and we are only starting to understand the impact that global change is having on them," said Kathleen Treseder of the University of California, Irvine.
Treseder studied the effect of rising temperatures and fungi on carbon stores in Alaskan boreal forests, one area of the globe that is experiencing greater warming than others.
"There is a lot of frozen dead material under the snowpack. There is as much carbon trapped in the soil of northern ecosystems as there is carbon in the atmosphere. It is a big unknown what is going to happen if these environments heat up," said Treseder.
She started her research with the hypothesis that an increase in temperatures would lead to increased decomposition by fungi.
Since one by-product of decomposition is carbon dioxide, rising temperatures should result in greater carbon dioxide release from the soil.
What she found was that nitrogen levels in the soil increased as temperatures rose, and nitrogen tends to suppress fungal decomposition rates.
"In reality, as temperatures increase we tend to see greater nitrogen availability in the soil. Nitrogen suppresses activity and diversity. What we end up seeing is less carbon dioxide production from fungi as temperatures increase in northern ecosystems," she said.
Rising temperatures are also having an effect on snowpack and glaciers and that could be detrimental to the communities of microorganisms living below them.
"As global temperatures rise and glaciers retreat, these microorganisms lose their habitat. They will probably go extinct before we can study them and get a better idea of their contributions," said Steven Schmidt from the University of Colorado.
According to John Kelly of Loyola University in Chicago, while rising temperatures may be reducing microbial carbon dioxide production, rising levels of carbon dioxide due to human activity can cause subtle but important shifts in the composition of microbial populations.
This could have an enormous impact on the food chain as the microbes are as much, if not more, a source of nutrients for the small animals that feed on these leaves.
"It really does look like microbes are sensitive to global changes. We are just not quite sure how they will respond," said Treseder.