A coalition of 14 global universities has secured US$12.5 million to better understand ecosystem and climate interactions.

The American National Science Foundation put up the money to form EMERGE (EMergent Ecosystem Response to ChanGE) – an institute bringing together an interdisciplinary team of 33 international scientists.

The team includes QUT Faculty of Health microbial ecologists and bioinformaticians Professor Gene Tyson and Dr Ben Woodcroft. QUT is the only Australian participant in the institute.

Professor Tyson says EMERGE will build on research conducted on the ecosystem of Stordalen Mire, a sub-Arctic peatland in northern Sweden where permafrost thaw due to rising global temperatures is driving changes in landscape, plants and microbes.

When permafrost soils thaw, carbon locked within them becomes exposed. Microbes break this down, releasing greenhouse gasses – methane and carbon dioxide.

Due to the large amounts of carbon locked in the organic matter within permafrosts, there is concern about future global warming causing widespread thaw and releasing massive amounts of greenhouse gasses.

“We’ve been studying the microbial activity in the Stordalen Mire ecosystem for the past decade, and this will be the focus of EMERGE over the next five years,” said Professor Tyson.

“We want to better understand how the microbes behave and contribute to producing greenhouse gasses as individual organisms down at the genetic level, how they assemble into communities and interact collectively, and how they evolve over time and in response to changing conditions.

“Inside microorganisms, including bacteria, is a genome, and so an individual gene in a microbe that is breaking down matter within the ecosystem can have a global greenhouse impact.

“The aim of EMERGE is to create a ‘genes-to-ecosystems-to-genes’ framework of what is happening to create models to help predict ecosystem response to climate change.”

The EMERGE institute will bring together scientific expertise inside and outside biology, including in ecology and evolution, organismal biology, team science, and modelling and computational science.  It will also have a strong training, education and outreach component and will involve biologists at the postdoctoral, graduate and undergraduate levels.