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Chapter 9 : Microbes and the Carbon Cycle

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Microbes and the Carbon Cycle, Page 1 of 2

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Abstract:

Microbes are prominent agents in the recycling of several major chemical elements on Earth, notably oxygen, carbon, nitrogen, and sulfur. The microbes decompose organic matter to obtain energy and/or nutrients for their own multiplication in several ways including fermentation. Numerous species of microbes are engaged in this phase of the carbon cycle, which results in the conversion of organic carbon to CO2. This chapter examines how carbon moves through the cycle. In contrast to animals, which require organic compounds of carbon, plants grow on CO2, the major form of inorganic carbon. The utilization of CO2 by green plants through photosynthesis is the largest chemical process on Earth. Microbes are important agents of much of this carbon atom traffic, which is illustrated in a diagram that indicates only the general outline of the carbon cycle and introduces two new terms: autotroph and heterotroph. Shut off from sunlight, the plants died, and their decomposition was greatly slowed due to shortage of O2 in the muds. The organic matter was consequently converted to peat (partly decayed vegetation), some of which was further transformed to coal. In other words, coal deposits represent huge amounts of modified organic plant materials that have escaped the dynamic carbon cycle. When we burn coal and thereby convert it to CO2 we are accelerating return of carbon to the active cycle. Combustion of oil also restores CO2 to the atmosphere, and there is considerable evidence indicating that oil deposits were formed, in part, by ancient microbial processes.

Citation: Gest H. 2003. Microbes and the Carbon Cycle, p 50-57. In Microbes. ASM Press, Washington, DC. doi: 10.1128/9781555817855.ch9
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Figures

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Figure 10

The carbon cycle. Carbon atoms are in constant flux between inorganic and organic forms. Autotrophs convert CO2 to a multitude of organic compounds, and these are eventually recycled back to CO2 by the chemical activities of diverse assortments of microbes.

Citation: Gest H. 2003. Microbes and the Carbon Cycle, p 50-57. In Microbes. ASM Press, Washington, DC. doi: 10.1128/9781555817855.ch9
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Image of Figure 11
Figure 11

The classic Priestley experiment showing the interdependence of animal and plant life. A lone plant and a lone mouse in separate closed jars soon died, but when a plant and a mouse were placed together in a closed jar, they continued to live.

Citation: Gest H. 2003. Microbes and the Carbon Cycle, p 50-57. In Microbes. ASM Press, Washington, DC. doi: 10.1128/9781555817855.ch9
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Image of Figure 12
Figure 12

Apparatus used by Priestley. For his early experiments on gases, Priestley frequently used household utensils (wine and beer glasses, clay tobacco pipes, a laundry tub, etc.). Later, Josiah Wedgwood supplied him with ceramic tubes, dishes, crucibles, and other items.

Citation: Gest H. 2003. Microbes and the Carbon Cycle, p 50-57. In Microbes. ASM Press, Washington, DC. doi: 10.1128/9781555817855.ch9
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Image of Figure 13
Figure 13

This diagram summarizes the two major biological processes that support all plant, animal, and microbial life on Earth. Solar energy drives the conversion of CO2 and water to organic matter, symbolized here as sugar (C16H12O6), in plants. Plants also produce oxygen gas (O2) and are the source of the O2 required by animals and many aerobic microbes. (Some bacteria use a form of photosynthesis that does not yield O2; see Chapter 15). In the process of respiration, animals and aerobic microbes “burn” sugar and other organic compounds with O2 to obtain chemical energy (in the form of adenosine triphosphate [ATP]) for growth and metabolism.

Citation: Gest H. 2003. Microbes and the Carbon Cycle, p 50-57. In Microbes. ASM Press, Washington, DC. doi: 10.1128/9781555817855.ch9
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References

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Tables

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Table 5

Examples of autotrophic bacteria that can convert CO2 to organic compounds

Citation: Gest H. 2003. Microbes and the Carbon Cycle, p 50-57. In Microbes. ASM Press, Washington, DC. doi: 10.1128/9781555817855.ch9

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