Microbes enhance resilience of carbon-rich peatlands to warming

Microorganisms may provide hope that peatlands can withstand hotter temperatures in a changing climate.

Scientists at the Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory discovered that certain bacteria increase the climate resilience of Sphagnum moss, the tiny plant responsible for storing a third of the world’s soil carbon in peat bogs. Heat tolerant microbes transfer that protection to the plants, helping them survive climate warming.

Better understanding the workings of the mutually beneficial partnership, or symbiosis, between moss and microbes could point to new paths for maintaining healthy moss and preserving these vital peatland ecosystems that sequester so much carbon.

“Perhaps everything isn't as dire as we think,” said ORNL’s David Weston, a plant biologist and lead of the recent study. “Maybe organisms are more resilient than we know to these extreme climatic conditions. We're seeing that you can drastically influence an organism's ability to handle these stressful conditions just on its associated microbiome.”

The research team found that hotter temperatures change the composition of the microbial communities, or microbiomes, living in Sphagnum moss. This change in community composition causes Sphagnum to activate certain genes, triggering production of hormones and proteins that are known to confer stress tolerance.