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Two ways in which microbes help us fight climate change


What is the willingness of organisations and individuals to contribute to the mitigation of climate change? We at Mind the Microbes, are not the only ones with the will to work for the environment. Our commitment is to build a platform so that we can all participate in activities that promote sustainable development. Microorganisms can be a useful tool to overcome many of the environmental challenges and the first step of Mind the microbes is to provide information on the mitigation mechanisms of greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change.


The measurement of greenhouse gases is a way to quantify the negative impact of human activity on the environment. This impact is directly related to the increase in global temperature, which produces extreme climatic changes. Microbes are key in the methane and carbon dioxide cycles (two of the main greenhouse gases), and we can use the capabilities of microbes to fight against climate change. In this post we will describe two ways in which microbes help us in this environmental challenge:


1. Microbes that produce fuel:

The main emissions of anthropogenic greenhouse gases (produced by human activities) come from the combustion of fossil fuels, so an energy transition is one of the ways to fight against climate change. There are several species of algae that can help us in this transition because they produce a compound very similar to diesel (bio-diesel). The production of this fuel from algae generates a much lower percentage of greenhouse gases, not to mention that one of the inputs in the process is carbon dioxide (one of the main greenhouse gases). This means advantages from different perspectives to mitigate climate change.


Examples of Algae that produce bio-diesel from wastewater. Edited images from www.keweenawalgae.mtu.edu, The Japanese Fresh-water Algae and www.geppe.net

Scientific research is published every day providing answers to improve the performance of the algae culture for the production of biodiesel. Also companies like Airbus and ExxonMobil have directed resources to obtain this fuel on an industrial scale. Algae are organisms that use light and carbon dioxide to produce their own food (see more about Algae), which is why many projects have been built in deserted areas where the incidence of sun is high. The design of the reactors transforms the landscape into a green work of art. We ask ourselves: What is needed to make this type of projects more popular?


Images from: commerce.gov, @oaskoura and commerce.gov, Schott

2. Plastic made of microbes:

Plastic is a material derived from petroleum and its production generates greenhouse gas emissions, and it is degradation after discarding can take millions of years. Finding an alternative material that does not have a negative impact on soils and oceans has been the focus of researchers studying the molecules called PHAs (Polyhydroxyalkanoates). These are polymers produced by some microorganisms and have qualities similar to plastic derived from petroleum. The advantage of PHAs is that they are rapidly degradable through composting processes. Many microbes that live in the soil have the ability to produce this polymer, but only under special conditions produce PHAs that can be used on an industrial scale.


To produce PHAs microorganisms use a source of food rich in sugars. Depending on the species of microorganism, the production conditions may vary, but in general terms, the sugar is transformed into carbon polymers that are accumulated within the cell. In the world several companies are betting on the production of bioplastic and some (like Bio-on) are working on using wastes with a high sugar content as a source of food for microorganisms (i.e. those derived from potato crops).


Microorganisms with PHAs inside the cell (1 and 2) and bioplastic observed in a microscope (3). Image credit: Bio-on.

These are just two examples of the infinite number of ways in which microorganisms can be our allies by reducing the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, speed-up energy transition and avoid the plastic contamination of the environment. The answer to the current environmental problems can be seen through a microscope.

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