Today’s Solutions: January 24, 2022

All animals, including humans, host a collection of friendly bacteria that help us digest food and fight infection. Such kinds of friendly microbes are also found in soil to help plants grow, cope with stress, and fight off pests.

These incredible microscopic beings are also essential to understanding climate change, and a recently-discovered species of soil bacteria could actually serve as an ally in the fight against this urgent global challenge.

Cornell researchers have found a new species of soil bacteria that is particularly adept at breaking down organic matter, including the cancer-causing chemicals that are released when coal, gas, oil and refuse are burned.

Named madseniana — after the late microbiologist who discovered it, Gene Madsen — the new bacteria is especially adept at breaking down aromatic hydrocarbons, which make up lignin, a major component of plant biomass and soil organic matter.

This means that the newly identified bacteria could be a candidate for biodegradation research and an important player in the soil carbon cycle — the natural cycling of carbon through the Earth and the atmosphere, which scientists say has been thrown out of whack by excess human emissions.

The discovery represents a breakthrough in understanding how bacteria break down carbon in soil and could be key in ensuring the sustainability of soil and the ability to predict the future of the global climate.

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