A Trent University-led study, recently published by the internationally renowned science journal Nature Communications, shows some types of carbon compounds can persist longer than others in the natural environment because they resist degradation by bacteria and fungi – providing invaluable opportunities for mitigating climate change through vital understanding of how different types of carbon degrade in the natural environment.
The findings from Trent’s Ecosystems and Global Change Group, led by Dr. Andrew Tanentzap, Canada Research Chair in Climate Change and Northern Ecosystems and Dr. Erik Emilson, adjunct professor in Trent’s Environmental & Life Sciences Graduate Program, recognize Trent’s dedication to innovative research, and a significant achievement in our understanding of what drives carbon cycling.
"Our research provides a new understanding for what happens to carbon that is lost from soil into freshwaters,” says Prof. Tanentzap. “This knowledge can help us develop more effective strategies to preserve soil carbon and combat climate change."
Understanding carbon storage in soils
Soil is one of the most important tools to combat climate change but loses large amounts of the carbon it sequesters from the atmosphere into runoff. When this carbon enters freshwaters, microorganisms like bacteria and fungi can break down the carbon to use as food for their growth. This process releases greenhouse gases back into the atmosphere, contributing to global warming and negatively impacting the environment.
Prof. Tanentzap’s team used technology that identifies individual carbon compounds and tracked the fate of thousands of these compounds from soils into downstream waters. They studied streams in northwestern Ontario and discovered a group of carbon compounds that can be found in all environments. Using state-of-the-art genetic sequencing technology, the team linked the presence of these carbon compounds to a few biological steps undertaken by microbes. The team suggests that exposure to these biological reactions can explain the general increase in the persistence of carbon that is observed as it moves from land into the oceans.
In addition to this valuable research, a second study involving Prof. Tanentzap’s team recently appeared in Nature Communications. The second study examines how different carbon-based molecules respond to global warming. The study found that warmer temperatures increased greenhouse gas emissions from waters by changing the make-up of carbon compounds in the environment across various climate zones. These changes also depended on other global drivers like nutrient pollution.
"Our recent studies shed light on historically poorly understood aspects of the global carbon cycle,” says Prof. Tanentzap. The findings have far-reaching implications and will be extremely valuable for informing environmental management and conservation efforts of the future.”