A Better Understanding

By Emily Carpenter

Northern Michigan is home to several peat lands, and Steve McAllister has brought pieces of them back to Oregon. Peat is dense organic soil which decomposes in wet, boggy areas. These peat lands produce methane, but what controls the methane production isn’t entirely known. This is what McAllister is trying to understand.

McAllister is a fifth year doctoral candidate in ecology studying bio-geochemistry at the University of Oregon. Specifically, he studies the role of microorganisms in the production of greenhouse gases in peat lands. The amount of methane varies greatly among the peat lands so he brought incubated samples back to the university to examine the differences in microbial community structure.

Steve McAllister, working in science lab
Steve McAllister, ecologist, photo copyright Emily Carpenter

“I am hypothesizing that the community structure, which is to say the actual identity of individual methanogenic species and their relative abundances within a peat land system, can have an effect on the reaction of that system to increased temperature, with regards to what happens with methane production,” says McAllister.

This is of particular interest with respect to global warming, as methane is a potent greenhouse gas, and increased methane levels can contribute to global warming (Wikipedia source).

After two summers in Michigan, taking samples of peat and quantifying methane flux in the systems, McAllister is now working in the lab to extract microbial DNA from the peat. He is looking specifically at community structure with a functional gene, a gene that is actually involved in methanogenisis, which also allows him to look at the RNA that is coding for proteins. This gives him two separate views of the community structure. “I can quantify both what organisms are present in the site—and what organisms are actively making the cellular machinery for methanogenisis, at a given time,” says McAllister.

Steve McAllister studying peat in Michigan
Steve McAllister studying peat in Michigan, photo courtesy Steve McAllister

When McAllister puts the microbial DNA and RNA data together with the records of methane flux in peat lands from which the microorganisms were extracted, he will be able to tell if there is a strong relationship between methane production and the number or type of microorganisms in a peat land. “This is important because it should increase the accuracy with which we can predict how large scale ecosystem processes react to climate change,” says McAllister. Ultimately this kind of information can help the government make choices about land and resource use. Understanding the processes in natural green-house gas production and how people affect these natural processes, can lead to a better understanding of climate change.

Though McAllister is now deeply involved in this work with microorganisms, he originally wanted to be a journalist. He was applying to journalism schools when his chemistry teacher nominated him for a two week research experience with a professor from the University of California. He was able to do field ecology work in the California high desert, studying the effects of climate change on plant communities. When he got home, he started applying to a different set of colleges, to study ecology.

Steve McAllister, working in science lab 2
Steve McAllister, working in science lab, photo copyright Emily Carpenter

McAllister dropped out of college in Colorado part way through his undergrad studies and moved to Oregon to join a polyamorous anarchist commune. “That sort of thing seems like a great idea when your 21,” says McAllister. McAllister fell in love with Oregon, and decided to stay even when the commune didn’t work out. He decided to finish his degree at the University of Oregon and eventually joined the graduate program.

Now it has become a mission for McAllister to help expand the available knowledge on factors that control life. He says that microorganisms mediate all the chemical cycles on earth. Knowing how these microorganisms work is key to understanding how the environment will react to change. McAllister and other scientists are providing this information, but everyone needs to become involved. Citizens need to make sure that people in office are making decisions about climate change. “Make it an election issue. Vote on it,” say McAllister. Understanding should inspire action.

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