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Karen Lloyd, an associate professor of microbiology at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, has received a $2.5 million grant from the Department of Energy to conduct research on the effects of thawing permafrost on the environment.

Karen Lloyd
Karen Lloyd

Permafrost—ground that remains below freezing for more than two years—is a natural reservoir of soil organic carbon. As it thaws, microbes break down the newly available carbon in the soil, possibly resulting in a flux of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere. Lloyd’s research will focus on this process, studying the production and recycling of greenhouse gases in permafrost microbes.

“The big reason we’re doing this is to understand what happens when this carbon becomes available to microbial processes,” Lloyd said. “We’re dialing deep into the microbial communities that live there and how they’re taking different types of organic matter under different conditions and what they actually do to it.”

Researchers will use core samples from Bayelva, Svalbard, the location of a 20-year permafrost monitoring program and one of the most rapidly thawing areas of the Arctic.

Data from various microbial analyses will be compiled into a model, allowing future predictions of the effects of microbial communities’ activities on changes in released gases from surface permafrost and newly exposed permafrost layers.

“What would be amazing is if we could understand the process by which soil organic carbon is turned into greenhouse gases. If we can have a handle on what’s driving it, then we can better predict how it’s likely to affect us,” Lloyd said.

Partners on the project include UT professors Tatiana Vishnivetskaya and Andrew Steen, Robert Hettich at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, John Cliff at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, and Tullis Onstott at Princeton University.

The project will run through September 2022.


Karen Dunlap (865-974-8674,

Amanda Womac (865-974-2992,