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Lab scientists tinker with microbes to battle climate change
[May 08, 2011]

Lab scientists tinker with microbes to battle climate change

May 07, 2011 (The Oakland Tribune - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) -- Microbes will take center stage next week as the unusual protagonists in a free talk with local scientists tackling climate change.

The one-celled creatures are now part of a major research initiative at Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory to explore ways to recapture more of the 6 billion tons of heat-trapping carbon dioxide human activities generate annually The researchers, who will speak Monday evening at the Lesher Center for the Arts in Walnut Creek, are working with the Joint Genome Institute in Walnut Creek, a federal facility for genetic sequencing of microbes and other life-forms.

The terrestrial ecosystem, meaning everything on land -- from plants to soil and other geological features -- absorbs about one-third of atmospheric carbon. Much of the credit goes to microbes, said Donald DePaolo, an associate lab director who heads the Berkeley Lab's Carbon Cycle 2.0 initiative.

"Microbes are doing a huge job of taking carbon out of the atmosphere," DePaolo said. But how microbes, usually bacteria, do their work is still largely a mystery, he said.

The Carbon Cycle 2.0 initiative pursues scientific advances that would allow humanity to produce enough energy for a comfortable existence for the planet's population, without unleashing vast quantities of carbon dioxide.

At Monday's talk, two scientists from the genome institute and one Berkeley Lab scientist will share new research on microbes and their role in greenhouse gas emissions.

The event will be moderated by John Fowler, KTVU health and science editor.

Terry Hazen, a Berkeley Lab scientist, will describe the capacity of bacteria to consume oil during the Gulf of Mexico spill last year. Surprised scientists also found that the bacteria -- once they finished off the oil -- turned their appetite to the huge quantities of methane released by the oil spill. Methane is 20 times more powerful a heat-trapping gas than CO2.

"The methane started to deplete very, very fast," he said. That knowledge eases some concerns that ocean warming might release methane stored deep below the ocean floor. Instead, it's possible -- although not certain -- that bacteria might consume at least some of it.

Hazen will also describe work in the Arctic, where melting tundra could lead to huge releases of methane by bacteria consuming thawed plant material long stored in the once-frozen ground. They're experimenting with ideas for stopping the bacteria from releasing methane.

Scientists with the Joint Genome Institute will describe their work in building a genetic encyclopedia of microbial life and the role of microbes in the Arctic tundra.

The talk is free, but requires a reservation. Call 925-943-7469 to reserve tickets. (The box office is closed on Monday.) Suzanne Bohan covers science. Contact her at 510-262-2789. Follow her at

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