From Michigan State University (US) : “Say hello to a vast underground ecosystem”

Michigan State Bloc

From Michigan State University (US)

May 26, 2021

Matthew Schrenk
Kim Ward

MSU researchers help reveal how ‘forests’ of microbes living in geological hotspots play an underestimated role in Earth’s carbon cycle

MSU researchers and their colleagues studied the microbial communities by sampling hot springs in Costa Rica — like the one shown here — that are connected to deep Earth environments. Credit: Tom Owens.

MSU Associate Professor Matthew Schrenk samples a rock specimen for microbes.

Michigan State University researchers have helped unveil an expansive microbial ecosystem living deep within Earth that is fueled by chemicals produced by volcanic eruptions and continental collisions.

Spartans joined an interdisciplinary and international team of scientists to show that these microbial communities eat the carbon; sulfur; and iron compounds generated by geological processes beneath Costa Rica. The team published its results in the journal Nature Geosciences on April 22,2021.

“There is a diverse and thriving microbial ecosystem beneath our feet that impacts the Earth in many important ways,” said Matthew Schrenk, an associate professor in MSU’s College of Natural Science. Schrenk works in the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences and the Department of Microbiology and Molecular Genetics.

“A huge amount of the Earth’s biodiversity is beneath our feet, and they’re critical to the functioning of the planet. Most people don’t realize that,” he said.

Heather Miller, a doctoral student in Schrenk’s research group, also contributed to the study.

The research team — led by Karen Lloyd, an associate professor at the University of Tennessee (US), and Donato Giovannelli, a professor at the University of Naples Federico II [Università degli Studi di Napoli Federico II] (IT) — found that this microbial ecosystem sequesters a huge amount of carbon dioxide. In fact, the team estimated that up to 170 metric tons of carbon could be gobbled up by the ecosystem every year.

“This work shows that carbon may be siphoned off to feed a large ecosystem,” said Peter Barry, assistant scientist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (US) and co-author of the study. “This means that biology might affect carbon fluxes in and out of the Earth’s mantle, which forces scientists to change how they think about the deep carbon cycle over geologic time scales.”

When there’s a collision between the Earth’s tectonic plates — specifically an oceanic plate and a continental plate — one plate gets pushed down, or subducted, into the mantle carrying with it materials that accumulated at the seafloor. The other plate becomes studded with volcanoes, which serves as conduits for gases escaping to the atmosphere. This is the main process by which chemical elements are moved between Earth’s surface and its interior, eventually recycling these materials over millions of years back to the surface.

An illustration of a subduction zone. Credit: Robert Simmon, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center (US)

“Subduction zones are fascinating environments,” said Maarten de Moor, associate professor at the National University of Costa Rica [Universidad Nacional de Costa Rica] (CR) and co-author on the study. “They produce volcanic mountains and serve as portals for carbon moving between the interior and exterior of Earth.”

In the new study, the team found microbes that live deep underground across the entirety of the subduction zone under Costa Rica act as gatekeepers, limiting the quantities of the chemicals, including important greenhouse gases, that make it into the atmosphere.

“These microbes use chemicals from the subduction zone to form the base of an ecosystem that is large and filled with diverse primary and secondary producers,” said the University of Tennessee’s Lloyd, a co-corresponding author of the paper. “It’s like a vast forest, but underground.”

A close-up photo of a hot spring reveals white microbial biofilms fueled by chemicals associated with volcanic activity. Credit: Donato Giovannelli.

This suggests that the known qualitative relationship between geology and biology may have significant quantitative implications for our understanding of how the distribution of carbon and other elements on Earth have changed throughout its history, potentially impacting global climate.

“We already know of many ways in which biology has influenced the habitability of our planet, leading to the rise in atmospheric oxygen, for example,” said Giovannelli of the University of Naples Federico II and co-corresponding author. “Now, our ongoing work is revealing another exciting way in which life and our planet coevolved.”

See the full article here .


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Michigan State Campus

Michigan State University (US) is a public research university located in East Lansing, Michigan, United States. Michigan State University (US) was founded in 1855 and became the nation’s first land-grant institution under the Morrill Act of 1862, serving as a model for future land-grant universities.

The university was founded as the Agricultural College of the State of Michigan, one of the country’s first institutions of higher education to teach scientific agriculture. After the introduction of the Morrill Act, the college became coeducational and expanded its curriculum beyond agriculture. Today, Michigan State University (US) is one of the largest universities in the United States (in terms of enrollment) and has approximately 634,300 living alumni worldwide.

U.S. News & World Report ranks its graduate programs the best in the U.S. in elementary teacher’s education, secondary teacher’s education, industrial and organizational psychology, rehabilitation counseling, African history (tied), supply chain logistics and nuclear physics in 2019. Michigan State University (US) pioneered the studies of packaging, hospitality business, supply chain management, and communication sciences. Michigan State University (US) is a member of the Association of American Universities and is classified among “R1: Doctoral Universities – Very high research activity”. The university’s campus houses the National Superconducting Cyclotron Laboratory, the W. J. Beal Botanical Garden, the Abrams Planetarium, the Wharton Center for Performing Arts, the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum, the Facility for Rare Isotope Beams, and the country’s largest residence hall system.


The university has a long history of academic research and innovation. In 1877, botany professor William J. Beal performed the first documented genetic crosses to produce hybrid corn, which led to increased yields. Michigan State University (US) dairy professor G. Malcolm Trout improved the process for the homogenization of milk in the 1930s, making it more commercially viable. In the 1960s, Michigan State University (US) scientists developed cisplatin, a leading cancer fighting drug, and followed that work with the derivative, carboplatin. Albert Fert, an Adjunct professor at MSU, was awarded the 2007 Nobel Prize in Physics together with Peter Grünberg.

Today Michigan State University (US) continues its research with facilities such as the U.S. Department of Energy-sponsored Michigan State University (US)- Department of Energy(US) Plant Research Laboratory and a particle accelerator called the National Superconducting Cyclotron Laboratory. The U.S. Department of Energy Office of Science named Michigan State University as the site for the Facility for Rare Isotope Beams (FRIB). The $730 million facility will attract top researchers from around the world to conduct experiments in basic nuclear science, astrophysics, and applications of isotopes to other fields.

In 2004, scientists at the Cyclotron produced and observed a new isotope of the element germanium, called Ge-60 In that same year, Michigan State University (US), in consortium with the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (US) and the government of Brazil, broke ground on the 4.1-meter Southern Astrophysical Research Telescope (SOAR) in the Andes Mountains of Chile.

The consortium telescope will allow the Physics & Astronomy department to study galaxy formation and origins. Since 1999, MSU has been part of a consortium called the Michigan Life Sciences Corridor, which aims to develop biotechnology research in the State of Michigan. Finally, the College of Communication Arts and Sciences’ Quello Center researches issues of information and communication management.

The Michigan State University (US) Spartans compete in the NCAA Division I Big Ten Conference. Michigan State Spartans football won the Rose Bowl Game in 1954, 1956, 1988 and 2014, and the university claims a total of six national football championships. Spartans men’s basketball won the NCAA National Championship in 1979 and 2000 and has attained the Final Four eight times since the 1998–1999 season. Spartans ice hockey won NCAA national titles in 1966, 1986 and 2007. The women’s cross country team was named Big Ten champions in 2019.[12] In the fall of 2019, MSU student-athletes posted all-time highs for graduation success rates and federal graduation rates, according to NCAA statistics.