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In recent years, it has become increasingly clear that human activities are driving global environmental changes, including increasing temperatures.
The changes have had a dramatic influence worldwide on how different organisms interact with each other and with the environment where they live, a University of Canterbury (UC) researcher says.
Dr Stinus Lindgreen, Danish post-doctoral researcher who is currently working on biological sciences at the University of Canterbury, is studying climate change’s impact on ecosystems. Dr Lindgreen was recently awarded a prestigious Marie Curie Fellowship from the European Union as part of his New Zealand study.
``It is extremely important we get a better understanding of what mechanisms are at work and how climate change is influencing the biosphere,’’ he says.
``One of the most serious concerns about climate change is the possibility of so-called positive feedback between rising temperatures and increasing emission of carbon from the soil which then leads to an even greater increase in the greenhouse effect.
``This increasing emission is partly caused by micro-organisms living in the soil. It is also important to remember that micro-organisms are involved in some of the most crucial environmental processes such as nitrogen metabolism, respiration and decomposition.
``We need to investigate how microbes respond to climate change. To date, research in climate change and ecosystems has focused mostly on plants and animals, ignoring the important role of micro-organisms. So my research at UC is important at scientific, political and socio-economic levels.’’
Dr Lindgreen will use a field study where UC researchers have established a number of plots to investigate how the ecosystems respond to different drivers of climate change. Some plots have been heated by cables to have a temperature 3Cdegrees above the daily temperature. Other plots have been treated with nitrogen to simulate the use of fertilisers. The role of invasive species is also studied. All of these factors will also be combined during the study.
Dr Lindgreen will investigate how factors affect the microbial community in the soil by looking at which micro-organisms are there and what they do. This can be done using the latest technology to directly find out which genes are actively being used and from this he can find out not only which micro-organisms are present but also what they are doing.
``In our research we’ll be asking `does increasing temperatures change the composition of micro-organisms in the soil? If so, how does that affect the ability to fix nitrogen in the soil? Do other micro-organisms take over a specific function when an organism disappears or does the ecosystem as a whole change behaviour?’
``The answers to those questions can be used to guide decisions about how to respond to changes in the climate and it will help us get a much better understanding of an important part of the ecosystems on which we all depend.’’
Dr Lindgreen will return to the University of Copenhagen, Denmark, in early 2015. He will be researching on the project in collaboration with Professor Jason Tylianakis, Dr Anthony Poole and Dr Paul Gardner.