University Of Wyoming Researchers Use Bacteria To Measure Past Climate

Feb 19, 2021

The study looked at lake sediment in Wyoming and Colorado, including Lower Paintrock Lake in the Bighorn Mountains.
Credit National Park Service

Scientists at the University of Wyoming have used a new method to measure past climate in the state.

UW researcher Ioana Stefanescu and her team were looking for specific molecules created by bacteria. Those molecules tell scientists what the climate was like when the bacteria were alive.

"We can think about bacterial cell membranes as a coat that protects the inside of the cell from its environment," she said. "Basically, when the environmental conditions are warm, bacteria will synthesize a simpler version of these molecules. When the environmental conditions get colder, bacteria will synthesize a more complex version."

By determining what version of the molecules is in the sediment, Stefanescu and her team reconstructed the climate for the past 14,000 years in Wyoming. She said the technique had only been used in the tropics, but this study shows it works in other places too.

"The study of past climates, or paleoclimate, is very important because if we want to understand current climate changes and their impacts on our ecosystems, we need to analyze past climate changes," explained Stefanescu.

She said paleoclimate data like theirs suggests that climate change is occurring very quickly right now compared to in the past.

Have a question about this story? Please contact the reporter, Ashley Piccone, at