Nearly a third of the carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere annually can be traced back to bacteria living in the soil, where they break down plant and animal matter for energy.

For most soil microbes, this transformation requires oxygen. But a new study finds that tiny, scattered populations of bacteria living in soil are oxygen-starved and have an underappreciated effect on the amount of this potent greenhouse gas that is released into the air.

The research, published Friday, Nov. 24 in the journal Nature Communications and led by Stanford’s Scott Fendorf and former postdoc Marco Keiluweit, finds that these oxygen-free pockets of soil are vulnerable to disruption from climate change and some farming practices. The scientists said this work could help in modeling future carbon emissions by giving better predictions of how much CO2 might be released from the soil.

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