Magnifying microbes: How anaerobic microbes are important to environment

Matthew Kirk, associate professor of geology, hosted a lecture Thursday on how anaerobic microorganisms can be useful in solving environmental issues. (Katelin Woods | Collegian Media Group)

In a few days, world leaders will gather in New York City for the United Nations Climate Change Summit. Climate change, the change in global and regional climate patterns due to fossil fuels, is an issue countries have tried to solve for years.

On Thursday, associate professor of geology, Matthew Kirk, gave a public lecture discussing anaerobic microorganisms — organisms that do not need oxygen to grow — and why they are important to the environment and climate change.

Kirk said a large motivator for his work is the desire for his son to inherit a healthy planet.

“I’ve always been interested in environmental quality issues,” Kirk said. “But since entering parenthood, I would say that the my motivation for this area of research has definitely heightened. I’m genuinely worried about the world that we are handing our young people and the world that we ourselves are going to inhabit. So this has definitely increased my motivation to contribute to solving some of these big challenges.”

He said the threat to animal and organism species is another motivator.

“These aren’t just cuddly creatures that we think are nice, and that we want to see running around in the wild,” Kirk said. “These are organisms that contribute to our economies and also provide ecosystem services that help make life possible. This is a big concern as well, and it is linked to climate change. We need to start taking these things seriously. We’re not going to do it for ourselves — let’s do it for kids.”

Presenting evidence of climate change that he said is troubling, he encouraged action to aid the climate situation.

“So the way you know, the longer this thing goes on, the worse it’s going to get,” Kirk said. “It’s going to cost us one way or the other, and we can be proactive about it, we can start to reduce some of those costs, and do it in a smart way.”

Kirk said his research group examines interactions between microorganisms and geological environments.

“The main drivers of our research are to better understand factors that control the water quality, and to better understand carbon budgets in soils and aquatic habitats,” Kirk said.

He got interested in microbes when he was a masters student studying arsenic, a naturally occurring chemical that can lead to illness. Afterwards, Kirk said he continued to think about microbes.

“[I] started thinking more about just environmental controls on balance between these microbial reactions in nature — what are some of the ways that the environment influences the balance between these processes?” Kirk said.

Daniel Stich, senior in agronomy, said he enjoyed the lecture.

“I thought it was really interesting,” Stich said. “I liked learning about how the chemistry of different microbes can play a bigger impact in things like global warming and so the way that he talks about the methanogens was very interesting to me.”

Kirk talked a lot about certain aspects of microbes — such as sulfate reduction, iron reduction and methanogenesis. The conclusion of his lecture focused on how the results from this research could be used to aid in climate change — from experiments to developing biotechnology.

“Anaerobic microbes play major roles in the environment,” Kirk said. “We’ve been talking about water quality, carbon budgets and there’s certainly more to it than that.”

Hi there! I'm Julie Freijat. I'm the managing editor of the Collegian. In the past, I've served as an editor on the news and culture desks and worked closely with the multimedia staff. I love science and technology, hate poor movie dialogue and my favorite subreddit is r/truecrime.