(searched for: doi:10.1038/scientificamerican1118-32)
Life, Volume 11; doi:10.3390/life11020152
Who’s cooking, who’s cleaning, and who’s got the remote control within the waters blanketing Earth? Anatomically tiny, numerically dominant microbes are the crucial “homemakers” of the watery household. Phytoplankton’s culinary abilities enable them to create food by absorbing sunlight to fix carbon and release oxygen, making microbial autotrophs top-chefs in the aquatic kitchen. However, they are not the only bioengineers that balance this complex household. Ubiquitous heterotrophic microbes including prokaryotic bacteria and archaea (both “bacteria” henceforth), eukaryotic protists, and viruses, recycle organic matter and make inorganic nutrients available to primary producers. Grazing protists compete with viruses for bacterial biomass, whereas mixotrophic protists produce new organic matter as well as consume microbial biomass. When viruses press remote-control buttons, by modifying host genomes or lysing them, the outcome can reverberate throughout the microbial community and beyond. Despite recognition of the vital role of microbes in biosphere housekeeping, impacts of anthropogenic stressors and climate change on their biodiversity, evolution, and ecological function remain poorly understood. How trillions of the smallest organisms in Earth’s largest ecosystem respond will be hugely consequential. By making the study of ecology personal, the “housekeeping” perspective can provide better insights into changing ecosystem structure and function at all scales.