We are entering an unprecedented phase in our Earth system. The demand to provide food, energy, and clean water for growing populations is precariously balanced against maintaining and improving the health of our ecosystems. Our biosphere and all living organisms have co-existed and evolved with microorganisms for 3.5 billion years.
Microbes possess extraordinary metabolic diversity that enables them to catalyze critical biogeochemical processes that purify our water, build our soils, and regulate the productivity of ecosystems by helping plants acquire nutrients and water, and resist pathogens. This vast metabolic diversity, coupled with the complexity o the physical and chemical environment, makes understanding and predicting the activities of microorganisms a significant challenge.
How Earth’s microbes will respond to rapid climate change and increasing environmental extremes is uncertain. This imposes large constraints on our ability to predict the metabolic activity of microbes under elevated greenhouse gases, a warmer climate, severe droughts, and other perturbations that influence how ecosystems function. It is critical to be able to quantify, model, and predict microbial-ecosystem feedbacks to better understand the ecology of our planet and to translate this knowledge into environmental strategies. These strategies can lead to environmental solutions that use indigenous microbial functions for maintaining ecosystems that provide healthy soils and plants, clean water, and terrestrial carbon storage.
Studying the mechanisms by which microbial communities modulate ecosystems, and vice versa, helps us develop a predictive understanding of the potential for naturally occurring microbes to improve the sustainable use of Earth’s resources. At the intersection of biology, ecology, biogeochemistry, and the environment, new theories about microbial metabolism and dynamics are leading us to many discoveries about the true impact and potential of microbes—the most diverse and abundant life form on earth.