Earth's Critical Zone sustains terrestrial life and consists of the thin planetary surface layer between unaltered rock and the atmospheric boundary. Within this zone, flows of energy and materials are mediated by physical processes and by the actions of diverse organisms. Human activities significantly influence these physical and biological processes, affecting the atmosphere, shallow lithosphere, hydrosphere, and biosphere. The role of organisms includes an additional class of biogeochemical cycling, this being the flow and transformation of genetic information. This is particularly the case for the microorganisms that govern carbon and nitrogen cycling. These biological processes are mediated by the expression of functional genes and their translation into enzymes that catalyze geochemical reactions. Understanding human effects on microbial activity, fitness and distribution is an important component of Critical Zone science, but is highly challenging to investigate across the enormous physical scales of impact ranging from individual organisms to the planet. One arena where this might be tractable is by studying the dynamics and dissemination of genes for antibiotic resistance and the organisms that carry such genes. Here we explore the transport and transformation of microbial genes and cells through Earth's Critical Zone. We do so by examining the origins and rise of antibiotic resistance genes, their subsequent dissemination, and the ongoing colonization of diverse ecosystems by resistant organisms.
- human impacts
- planetary health