Boardwalks used to help researchers access key areas in the Stordalen Mire, a long-studied peatland in northern Sweden, collapse due to flooding from excessive permafrost thaw.
Boardwalks used to help researchers access key areas in the Stordalen Mire, a long-studied peatland in northern Sweden, collapse due to flooding from excessive permafrost thaw. (Photo:Patrick Crill/Stockholm University)

Studying climate change at high speed

Case Western Reserve University collaborates with 13 universities as part of National Science Foundation global project to understand interaction of climate and ecosystems

Case Western Reserve University is one among 14 universities from around the globe that have collectively been awarded $12.5 million from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to launch a new Biology Integration Institute (BII) to study the feedbacks between microbial ecosystems and climate change. 

The five-year project, called EMERGE, for “EMergent Ecosystem Response to ChanGE,” aims to pioneer a new “genes-to-ecosystems-to-genes” (G2E2G) framework for understanding the connections between tiny cells and the global climate, to enable scientists to predict how the responses of microbes to a changing climate will themselves change the environment.

Sarah Bagby

Sarah Bagby, a Case Western Reserve assistant professor of biology who studies the physiology and evolution of microbes (bacteria, archaea and viruses), will jointly lead one EMERGE team seeking to understand the metabolic strategies these organisms use to respond to change in the short term. 

Bagby is also part of a second team focusing on genetic adaptation to change in the longer term. All five EMERGE teams will focus on a single study site in the thawing permafrost in Sweden.

“We’re very excited about this project because it is work that affects all of us in the broader world—even though the focus is this fascinating area in Sweden,” said Bagby. “Our site has been studied for decades, and we’re seeing it change almost before our eyes. If you’re interested in how organisms respond to climate change at an accelerated timescale, this is the place to find out.”

Thawing permafrost in a Swedish peatland

Three EMERGE teams will focus their experiments and observations on how microbes respond to a changing climate: acclimating physiologically as individual organisms, interacting with neighbors and assembling into a shifting community, and adapting genetically. 

The other two teams will build these results into quantitative models that will be tested against ongoing observations of the field site.

The focal ecosystem is Stordalen Mire, a long-studied peatland in northern Sweden where permafrost thaw is driving changes in the landscape, plants and microbes. Permafrost holds much of the world’s soil carbon. As it thaws, that carbon might be released to the atmosphere as carbon dioxide or as the much more potent greenhouse gas methane, Bagby said.

The driving question is what the balance will be—and to what extent it will accelerate climate change.

And the overall goal of the research is discover how the processes that sustain life and enable biological innovation operate and interact within and across different scales of organization, from molecules to cells, species and ecosystems, under dynamically changing conditions. The result will be a framework for models to predict an ecosystem’s response to change.

“Microbes change the world,” Bagby said. “So, the near-, medium- and long-term changes that they make to respond to changes in their environment feed directly into climate processes—and then as the climate shifts, the microbes acclimate and adapt again. That means making useful predictions is a huge challenge, but it’s a challenge we absolutely must tackle.”

A multidisciplinary project

The project is led by Ohio State University associate professor of microbiology Virginia Rich, and includes 33 scientists representing 15 scientific sub-specialties. The partnership spans fields such as ecology and evolution, organismal biology, geochemistry, remote sensing, the science of team science and modeling and computational science. 

The institute launched Sept. 1 and will operate for at least five years with the potential for renewal. It also includes training, education and outreach elements. 

Activities will include a summer undergraduate research program, online curriculum development, a TEDx-style event for the public, a Summer Institute for early career researchers and a workshop connecting with researchers from other long-term research sites.

Participating universities include: the University of New Hampshire, the University of Arizona, Florida State University, Colorado State University at Fort Collins, University of California at Berkeley, Rochester Institute of Technology, Berkeley Labs, Joint Genome Institute, all in the United States; Lund University, Umeå University and Stockholm University, all in Sweden; and Queensland University of Technology in Australia.

For more information, contact Mike Scott at