Marine microbes could track climate change

Dominica Sanda

Australian scientists have discovered tiny microbes living in the ocean can be used to detect and predict changes in the climate.

The study, which involved several Australian universities and research institutes, extracted DNA from more than 175,000 species of microbes living in seawater along Australia's coastline and created a database to track the species.

Microbes, which are invisible to the naked eye, were formed nearly three billion years ago and account for more than 90 per cent of the ocean's biomass.

Project leader Mark Brown, University of Newcastle's senior researcher, says they function in a similar way to organs in a human body, with some acting as lungs responsible for gathering and distributing oxygen to the planet, while others act as the gut or liver to detoxify impurities.

They are sensitive to their environment and any change to conditions has the potential to dramatically reshape their community structure, Dr Brown says.

"(They) would be the first things to change," he told AAP.

"It's like the canary in a coalmine analogy - these sensitive indicators (microbes) detect subtle changes before you see big changes like dead fish."

Dr Brown hopes the study, which began in 2012, will help researchers to identify the effects of climate change and pollution based on the movements of microbe communities.

After gathering monthly samples from seven marine stations across Australia, the project team will develop models to predict where the organisms will live in the future.

Report co-author Martin Ostrowski from Macquarie University said the data would be used to determine how microbes respond to different environmental conditions and how they might change depending on future climate projections.