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Should we let sleeping microbes lie?

Microbes have three options: They can live, they can die, or they can be dormant.

How large numbers of dormant microorganisms, which act like hibernating bears, affect the natural environments when they act as microbial seed banks is unknown, says Jay Lennon, assistant professor of microbiology and molecular genetics at Michigan State University.

“Only a tiny fraction is metabolically active at any given time,” he says. “How would our environment be altered, in terms of carbon emissions, nutrient cycling, and greenhouse gases such as nitrous oxide, by dramatic increases or decreases in the dormancy of microbes?”

In the current issue of Nature Reviews: Microbiology, Lennon examines the cellular mechanisms that allow microbes to hibernate and addresses the implications they can have on larger ecosystems such as soil, oceans, lakes, and the human body.

Dormancy is a reversible state of low metabolic activity that organisms enter when they encounter hard times, such as freezing temperatures or starvation.

Unlike plants that follow predictable growth cycles, microbes don’t have to follow a linear progression. They can grow, experience distress, and go back to sleep. Once conditions change, they can start growing again without having to go through a full cycle.

“However, it does take a certain level of commitment, a certain energy investment to make it happen,” Lennon says. “Just as people don’t run out and winterize their homes if it gets cool in August, microbes want to be sure that truly hard times have set in before shifting into a dormant phase.”
 
 

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