It’s the little things- An interview with the Guest Editors of our Microbial Ecology of Changing Environments Call for Papers

PLOS ONE has an open Call for Papers on the Microbial Ecology of Changing Environments, with selected submissions to be featured in an upcoming Collection. We aim to highlight a range of interdisciplinary articles showcasing

It’s the little things- An interview with the Guest Editors of our Microbial Ecology of Changing Environments Call for Papers

PLOS ONE has an open Call for Papers on the Microbial Ecology of Changing Environments, with selected submissions to be featured in an upcoming Collection. We aim to highlight a range of interdisciplinary articles showcasing the diversity of systems, scales, interactions and applications in this dynamic field of research.

We spoke to the Guest Editors for this project, Melissa Cregger and Stephanie Kivlin, about what motivates their research and the challenges and opportunities faced by microbial ecologists.

 

What makes microbes so interesting?

MC: Microorganisms are everywhere and are important members of all of the ecosystems they inhabit. There are microorganisms in soils, oceans, lakes, and even within our bodies. Within all of these habitats they are performing really important functions. In lakes, oceans, and soils, microorganisms are key to moving nutrients around. Within our bodies, they aid in things like digestion and disease prevention.

SK: Microorganisms are fascinating in how genetically diverse and numerous they are. Microorganisms can be found in almost every habitat on Earth and are often the first to respond to environmental disturbance and global change. Thus, microorganisms likely hold the key to solving most of Earth’s problems as we face global climate change.

 

How is microbial ecology relevant to major environmental and societal issues like climate change and food security?

MC: Given how ubiquitous microorganisms are across the world, understanding how they function is key if we want to understand and mitigate the consequences of climatic change and if we want to grow food more sustainably and in marginal lands. For instance, if we can get a better understanding of microbial carbon cycling, we can potentially use biological carbon capture as a mitigation strategy to help combat rising levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide. Additionally, researchers around the world are trying to understand how plants interact with microbial communities in an effort to harness these microbes to increase food production and the ability of plants to withstand changing abiotic conditions.

SK: Microorganisms are the key for innovating nature-based solutions to climate change. For example, specific fungal symbionts of plants can be tailored to increase agricultural plant drought tolerance. Other microorganisms may be deployed to remediate oil spills or other man-made pollutants. Finally, engineering plant-microbial associations may lead to a larger terrestrial carbon sink to offset atmospheric CO2 concentrations, creating a negative feedback to climate change itself.

 

Tell us a bit about your own research and how it ties in with some of these issues.

MC:  A large portion of my research is focused on understanding how to use beneficial microbes to increase plant productivity and tolerance to drought, and also in understanding how these communities function in the soil environment with the ultimate goal of using them to enhance ecosystem stability. I am part of two large multi-disciplinary teams at Oak Ridge National Laboratory that are specifically focused on plant-microbe interactions in the potential biofuel feedstock, Populus. We are trying to characterize basic principles governing plant-microbe interactions in the hope of making Populus a better biofuel that can grow in marginal lands with limited input of fertilizer and water.

SK: Research in the Kivlin Lab aims to create distribution models for terrestrial microorganisms and their functions. Our current focus is on arbuscular mycorrhizal (AM) fungi, as these plant symbionts are the main providers of nutrients and drought tolerance to agricultural plants. We are interested in where these fungi are, the ecosystem-level carbon and nutrient cycling they promote and how sensitive these plant-fungal interactions may be to climate change. To address these questions, we both compile data on AM fungal distributions worldwide, but also examine plant-AM fungal interactions along altitudinal gradients that serve as a space for time substitution for climate change and in long-term climate change experiments.

 

How are technological advances opening up new opportunities in your field?

MC: Over the last 20 years there have been rapid advances in sequencing and molecular techniques that have enabled amazing opportunities in microbial and ecosystem ecology. We are finally able to identify unculturable microorganisms inhabiting diverse communities using next generation sequencing and are getting clues into their function using metagenomics, metatranscriptomics, proteomics, and metabolomics. Further, using these techniques, people are developing some new strategies to culture more microbes.

SK: It is increasingly clear that the genomics revolution has impacted microbial ecology. We now can link functional genetic potential to microorganisms in environmental microbiomes and understand how interactions among microorganisms and between microorganisms and plants control expression of these functional genes and the metabolites they code for.

 

How does microbial ecology benefit from interdisciplinary collaboration?

MC: Microbial communities are incredibly complex, therefore understanding their role in ecosystems really requires a systems biology approach. Because of this, having an interdisciplinary team to tackle questions at various scales is really important.

SK: Microbial ecology is inherently interdisciplinary. We collaborate with earth system modelers to scale microbial function from the organism to the globe and with geneticists to understand the genetic underpinnings of those functions. Without these collaborations, our field would be siloed to case-studies of microbial communities and lack the ability to develop first-principles theory across microbial communities and environments.

 

What are some of the biggest unsolved questions in microbial ecology?

MC: There are so many unsolved questions in microbial ecology that it is hard to just identify a few. We still have a limited understanding of how microbial communities fluctuate through time. How stable are they within ecosystems? Are organisms within communities functionally redundant? Does this redundancy aid in resilience of the community post disturbance? How do these communities respond to fluctuations in abiotic variables? I could really go on and on.

SK: Despite all of the vital roles that microorganisms provide in the environment, we still don’t understand (1) where microorganisms even are spatially and what abiotic and biotic processes control these distributions, or (2) how temporally dynamic microbial communities are both within and among plant growing seasons. Answering these fundamental questions will allow us to understand linkages between microbial communities and plant growth, microbial composition and ecosystem carbon and nutrient cycles, and allow us to effectively manipulate microbial consortia for societal gain in agricultural and bioremediation settings.

 

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ESCAIDE 2019 – A Smörgåsbord of Infectious Disease Epidemiology

ESCAIDE 2019 [Credit: ECDC](The title is an homage to the host country of the conference – Sweden – where the smörgåsbord is a buffet-style meal served on a large table. In English, the term has also adopted a

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All Dried Up? Modeling the Effects of Climate Change in California’s River Basins

Mono Lake
Whether you are trapped inside because of it, or mourning the lack of it, water is on everyone’s mind right now. Too much snow in the Midwest and Northeast has been ruining travel plans, while too little snow is limiting Californians’ annual ski trips. No one wants to drive three hours only to find a rocky hillside where their favorite slope used to be.

It’s hard to deny that abnormal things are happening with the weather right now. Recently, Governor Jerry Brown officially declared a state of emergency in California due to the drought and suggested that citizens cut water usage by 20%. With no relief in sight, it is important not only to regulate our current water use, but also to reevaluate our local programs and policies that will affect water usage in the future. So, how do we go about making these decisions without being able to predict what’s next? A recently published PLOS ONE article may offer an answer in the form of a model that allows us to estimate how potential future climate scenarios could affect our water supply.

journal.pone.0084946.g001

Researchers from UC Berkeley and the Stockholm Environmental Institute’s (SEI) office in Davis, CA built a hydrology simulation model of the Tuolumne and Merced River basins, both located in California’s Central Valley (pictured above). Their focus was on modeling the sensitivity of California’s water supply to possible increases in temperature. When building the model, the authors chose to incorporate historical water data, current water use regulations, and geographical information to estimate seasonal water availability across the Central Valley and the San Francisco Bay Area. They then ran various water availability scenarios through the model to predict how the region could be affected by rising temperatures.

Using estimated temperature increases of 2°C, 4°C, and 6°C, the model predicted earlier snowmelts, leading to a peak water flow earlier in the year than in previous years. The model also forecasted a decreased river flow due to increased evapotranspiration (temperature, humidity, and wind speed). The water supply was also estimated to drop incrementally with each temperature increase, though it is somewhat cushioned by the availability of water stored in California’s reservoirs.

journal.pone.0084946.g002

The authors used an existing model as an initial structure, and built upon it to include information on local land surface characteristics, evapotranspiration, precipitation, and runoff potential. Surrounding water districts were modeled as nodes and assigned a priority according to California’s established infrastructure and legislation. Using this information, the authors state that the tool is equipped to estimate monthly water allocation to agricultural and urban areas and compare it to historical averages for the same areas.

Though a broad model, the authors present it as a case study that provides estimates of longer-term water availability for the Central Valley and Bay Area, and encourage other areas to modify its design to meet the needs of their unique locales. Those of us looking for more specific predictions can also use the tool to create models with additional information and refined approximations, allowing flexibility for future changes in land use and policy. For now, we might have a good long-term view of our changing water supply and a vital tool as we race to keep up with our ever-changing world.

Citation: Kiparsky M, Joyce B, Purkey D, Young C (2014) Potential Impacts of Climate Warming on Water Supply Reliability in the Tuolumne and Merced River Basins, California. PLoS ONE 9(1): e84946. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0084946

Image 1 Credit: Mono Lake by Stuart Rankin

Image 2 Credit: Figure 1 pone.0084946

Image 3 Credit: Figure 2 pone.0084946

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Crisis in the Late Bronze Age Triggered by Environmental Change

Keuninck_(Coninck)_Kerstiaen_de_-_Fire_of_Troy_

What does it take to topple a civilization, or a whole group of them? Over three thousand years ago, agriculture and trade-based societies flourished in the Eastern Mediterranean. Yet something fishy happened circa 1200 BC that brought these cultural and commercial centers to their knees—something that has left historians in the dark.

Correspondence from that time attributes the decline, at least partially, to invasions from a band of raiders, referred to as Sea Peoples. Other scholars studying this period point to natural disasters, such as earthquakes or drought. Research recently published in PLOS ONE reveals a more insidious culprit: Climate change may have fueled drought, the invasions, and eventually the collapse of these civilizations in what historians call the Late Bronze Age crisis.

To explore the environmental factors behind this crisis, the researchers took continuous core samples from modern-day Cyprus, at what is now called Larnaca Salt Lake, or Hala Sultan Tekke.

fickleandfreckled

Core samples were analyzed for their pollen content and tested for the presence of dinoflagellates (pictured), a type of marine plankton. The researchers then studied the abundance and variety of plants represented by the ancient pollen and plotted fluctuations in the proportions of both between 1500 BC and 1500 AD. With similar data from nearby Syria, they reconstructed likely climate conditions in the region during the Late Bronze Age.

They found the abundance of marine plankton decreased around 1200 BC, suggesting the region was gradually becoming drier, as the lake lost its connection to the sea.  The pollen record reveals a shift towards plants that could handle drier weather, indicating a decrease in rainfall. Dwindling rain, the researchers suggest, may have made it difficult to maintain agricultural production and led to food shortages. These shortages might also have caused people to travel, migrate, or raid in search of more food.  This drought lasted three hundred years and coincides with the Sea People invasions.

It takes a lot to topple civilizations, and climate change has played its part in ending those in the Eastern Mediterranean during the Late Bronze Age. This evidence adds to the growing body of literature documenting the effects of climate change. This latest research adds a compelling chapter to the story of climate change, from which everyone can learn.

 

Citation: Kaniewski D, Van Campo E, Guiot J, Le Burel S, Otto T, et al. (2013) Environmental Roots of the Late Bronze Age Crisis. PLoS ONE 8(8): e71004. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0071004

Images:

Keuninck (Coninck) Kerstiaen de – Fire of Troy, from Wikimedia

DINOFLAGELLATE, by fickleandfreckled

Heating up the Science Behind PLOS’ New Climate Change Collection

Satellite images of penguin colonies in the southern Ross Sea

From penguin colonies in Antarctica, to California birds and North Carolina bugs, this month PLOS ONE focuses on the far-reaching aspects of climate change. In conjunction with the annual meeting of the Ecological Society of America (ESA), PLOS ONE and PLOS Biology unrolled a new collection of 16 research articles, curated by PLOS ONE Academic Editor, Ben Bond-Lamberty. The collection, “Ecological Impact of Climate Change”, features many articles that made a splash in the media. Here are some of the highlights:

Spring flowers are blooming earlier now than they did in the past. In a recent study, researchers compared the average flowering time for native species in Massachusetts and Wisconsin to data recorded by notable American naturalists Henry David Thoreau and Aldo Leopold. These native species have shown remarkable flowering shifts, especially during recent years: In 1865, Thoreau observed the highbush blueberry flowering in mid-May; in 2012, researchers observed this species flowering six weeks earlier in early April. For more about this study, visit National Geographic, NPR, and MSNBC.

Like spring flowers, corals also react to increasing temperatures, but to a much more ghostly effect. When pressured by unusually warm or polluted waters, corals shed the algae that enliven them with color, becoming white.

Tioman Island, Malaysia, Acropora colony

New research suggests that this phenomenon, known as coral bleaching and often fatal for coral colonies, may not be as devastating as expected: Coral colonies that survived previous coral bleaching were much more likely to rebound successfully the next time it occurred. An astounding 95% of Acropora, a coral species highly susceptible to bleaching, survived at a research site in Singapore in 2010. Read more about these tough coral taxa, in the New York Times blog.

Summer days are heating up in the city, too, and urban, tree-dwelling insects are thriving as a result. A recent PLOS ONE article reports that scale insects like Parthenolecanium quercifex are 13 times more numerous in the hottest parts of Raleigh, North Carolina, than in cooler, neighboring rural areas.

Scale Bugs CCBY Aug blog

And these scaly squatters don’t stop once they settle down. Researchers also found that urban scale insects were four times more abundant when placed in hot greenhouse conditions than rural scale insects in the same conditions. The Atlantic Cities and Discovery News have more on this and other urban insects studies.

As temperatures continue to rise, researchers in this PLOS ONE study integrated climate change threats with traditional conservation concerns by comparing the vulnerability of California’s birds in relation to the predicted effects of climate change over the coming years. Of the 29 threatened-bird taxa considered in the state of California, these researchers determined 21 of those 29 (72%) are considered vulnerable to climate change. Lucky for us and the birds who call those most vulnerable coastal environments home, the findings of this study can be used as an assessment tool to foster future conservation efforts. For more local and international coverage, check out KQED News and the Huffington Post.

Read Ben Bond-Lamberty’s overview of the Collection, learn how climate change may impact coffee plants, or more from the PLOS Blogs network. View the entire Collection here. For more news on PLOS ONE papers headlining in August, dive into our Media Tracking Project.

Citations:

Ellwood ER, Temple SA, Primack RB, Bradley NL, Davis CC (2013) Record-Breaking Early Flowering in the Eastern United States. PLoS ONE 8(1): e53788. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0053788

Guest JR, Baird AH, Maynard JA, Muttaqin E, Edwards AJ, et al. (2012) Contrasting Patterns of Coral Bleaching Susceptibility in 2010 Suggest an Adaptive Response to Thermal Stress. PLoS ONE 7(3): e33353. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0033353

Meineke EK, Dunn RR, Sexton JO, Frank SD (2013) Urban Warming Drives Insect Pest Abundance on Street Trees. PLoS ONE 8(3): e59687. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0059687

Gardali T, Seavy NE, DiGaudio RT, Comrack LA (2012) A Climate Change Vulnerability Assessment of California’s At-Risk Birds. PLoS ONE 7(3): e29507. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0029507

Image 1: Satellite images of penguin colonies in the southern Ross Sea. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0060568

Image 2: Tioman Island, Malaysia, Acropora colony. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0033353

Image 3: Ants and sapsuckers by John Tann