New model could point way to microbiome forecasting in the ocean

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Collecting sampled waters for trace gas and process oriented studies from Saanich Inlet. Credit: University of British Columbia

A new mathematical model developed at the University of British Columbia integrates environmental and molecular sequence information to better explain how microbial networks drive nutrient and energy cycling in marine ecosystems.

The work could dramatically improve researchers’ and policy makers’ ability to predict how the world’s marine microbial communities (microbiome) respond to climate change, and resulting impacts on fisheries, biodiversity, climate and more.

The model and associated simulations were published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“A drop of seawater can contain millions of single-celled microbes that collectively form the basis for nutrient and energy cycles in the ocean,” says UBC microbial ecologist Steven Hallam.

“Understanding how microbial processes contribute to these cycles is vital in a time of climate change. Our model provides a step change in more accurate projections of microbial processes with potential feedback on climate change and ecosystem health.”

Earth systems models already play an integral role in predicting climate and climate forcing processes in the environment. However, traditional models don’t incorporate microbiome information.

The UBC researchers collaborated across departments and with others in the United States and Germany to develop a predictive model describing multi-omic (DNA, RNA, and protein) dynamics and process rates along gradients of nutrients and energy in Saanich Inlet British Columbia.

Saanich Inlet is a tractable model ecosystem ideally suited to studying microbial community responses to climate change, particularly the impact of oxygen minimum zones. Oxygen minimum zones are hotspots for nutrient loss and greenhouse gas production and they are expanding due to .

“The intersection between and nutrient and energy cycles is vividly on display in oxygen-starved regions of the ocean,” says UBC geomicrobiologist Sean Crowe.

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