Scientists discover carbon-eating cyanobacteria near Sicily, heralding potential breakthroughs in natural climate solutions amid soaring global greenhouse gas emissions.

As global greenhouse gas emissions soared to unprecedented levels last year, scientists and world leaders are increasingly advocating for new carbon capture technologies. Interestingly, some think the answer lies in nature itself: microbes, the minute organisms that surround us but remain unseen.

Recently, an astonishing discovery was made near the volcanic island of Vulcano, off the coast of Sicily. Here, scientists stumbled upon a type of cyanobacteria with an exceptional appetite for carbon dioxide (CO2). Situated around the island are underwater hydrothermal vents rich in CO2. These vents, bathed in sunlight due to their shallow location, have paved the way for the evolution of CO2-consuming microbes.

Braden Tierney, a data scientist at Weill Cornell Medical College and Harvard Medical School, states that the microbes discovered last year are incredibly adept at consuming CO2 via photosynthesis. This research was funded by US biotech firm, Seed Health, and supported by a team from Harvard, Cornell, and the University of Palermo. Notably, the newly found cyanobacteria converts CO2 into biomass at a rate surpassing other known strains.

The unique feature of cyanobacteria is their ability to use photosynthesis, in the process sequestering carbon. Tierney refers to them as "nature's little alchemists" because they not only absorb CO2 but can transform it into valuable resources, such as biofuels or bioplastics. Remarkably, this new strain generates 22% more biomass than its closest competitors, sinking in water and further sequestering the CO2.

Helen Onyeaka, an industrial microbiologist at the University of Birmingham, emphasized the significance of this discovery, noting the cyanobacteria's unparalleled CO2 absorption rate.

Tierney's team isn't stopping at Vulcano. They've also ventured to the Rocky Mountains, where they've found microbe strains that thrive in high CO2 concentrations. Their goal? To create a "living database" that scientists globally can tap into, pairing DNA sequences with stored bacteria samples for future studies.

The carbon capture potential of cyanobacteria is already widely studied. What makes this discovery "truly remarkable" is the fact that the cyanobacteria strain can absorb CO2 at such a rapid rate, says Helen Onyeaka, an industrial microbiologist and associate professor at the University of Birmingham in the UK.

The urgent need for carbon capture solutions is echoed by the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The panel suggests that even significant emissions reductions might not be sufficient to curb global warming. Tierney argues that microbial solutions should be integrated with other technologies to pull CO2 from the atmosphere.

Kira Schipper of Qatar University highlights the potential of microbes, like cyanobacteria and microalgae, for carbon capture. They grow at a rapid pace and can be cultivated in places that don't interfere with food production. Moreover, the biomass they produce can be converted into a range of products, including biofuels and fertilizers.

According to BBC Future, cost is another factor tipping the scales in favor of microbes. Onyeaka asserts that microbial processes typically have lower operational costs compared to many technological carbon capture strategies. However, Kira Schipper emphasizes the technological challenges in scaling up such solutions.

But the applications of microbes don't stop at carbon capture. In Canada, scientists are exploring the use of probiotics to restore dwindling honeybee populations. By delivering specific probiotic strains to commercial hives, they've seen promising results in combating pathogens and boosting hive growth.

However, Onyeaka urges caution. Introducing large quantities of microbes to environments might disturb local ecosystems, and the stored carbon might reenter the atmosphere upon the death of these microbes. As with all solutions, understanding potential consequences is paramount.

Tierney remains optimistic. He believes that while there's no one-size-fits-all answer to climate change, the potential of microbes as high-performance carbon capture engines is exhilarating.

Eunice is a sustainability writer whose passion is sharing accessible eco-friendly practices with GreenCitizen's global readership. She enjoys birdwatching during her downtime, often deriving inspiration from nature's resilience. An enthusiastic cyclist, she is also an ardent advocate of eco-friendly transport.

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