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  • Writer's pictureJags Pandhal

Farting cows and gene-engineered soldiers?

By Luke Richardson

This week I attended the Annual Microbiology Conference in Edinburgh with Prof. Jags Pandhal and Dr Zongting Cai from the eponymous Pandhal lab in the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering at Sheffield. This was an opportunity to show off my recent and exciting research, and to absorb the state of the art in the effect microbes have on the climate and future at large.

In the excellent if wordily titled “Microbes as sentinels and solutions in a changing world”, sessions covered a wide gamut of topics. From new ways to fight climate change, by absorbing CO2 or preventing cows from farting, to fighting the spread of infectious diseases using satellites to predict where the pathogen may strike next, and terrifyingly, discussion of a future where gene-engineered soldiers fight in battles wearing armour that was grown in vats, under the threat of deadly new bioweapons. I particularly enjoyed Dr Craig Baker-Austin’s aforementioned talk about how warming seas are allowing seaborne diseases to appear in places they never have before, and how we can track and predict outbreaks using satellite data to monitor the climate in real time. If we cannot stop warming, it is vital to understand when and where its vicissitudes will strike.

Similarly, my own research interests are in the interactions between the very big and the very small and how this affects the climate, particularly the disappearance of glaciers. I research how microalgae, each individually less than one-one hundredth of a millimetre, can affect the entire climate when their vast numbers are taken into account. While tiny, microbes outnumber animals 5 trillion to one! 

The algae I study grow on ice and snow, particularly on glaciers. These algae absorb sunlight to grow, changing how much sunlight is reflected back into space from the glacier and melting it faster, up to 13% faster than an identical clean glacier. This is a vital factor in when, not if, we will lose many glaciers. Melting glaciers is often considered old hat in climate science, but these multi-billion ton blocks of ice are vital for farmers. It does not matter if there is no rain one year, if you have a glacier nearby, you can always rely on the melt in the summer. While not yet peer reviewed, I presented the first continental scale map of algae in the Alps and the fully-automatic location agnostic satellite based classifier I used to do it, allowing an estimate of how much algae is melting the Alpine glaciers.

Discussing such large-scale impacts of microbiology with other microbiologists is always fun, as they tend to start sceptical and end up enthusiastic, discussing how the organisms in their petri dishes are vital factors in the future of Earth’s climate. Microbiology subject can often keep you very very close to the lab bench, obsessing over individual molecules and genes. This is essential, fundamental work, but I thank the Microbiology Society for putting on this session, and allowing me to talk to my fellows about zooming out for a change. Way way out.

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