NSF funds Panikov's Alaskan Tundra Microbial Observatory project

12/15/04

Project holds significance for biotechnology and environmental science

HOBOKEN, N.J. -- A grant has been awarded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) to Drs. Nicolai S. Panikov (PI, Stevens Institute of Technology) and Vladimir Romanovsky (Co-PI, University of Alaska, Fairbanks) to establish a Microbial Observatory project in the Alaskan tundra. The long-term challenge is to identify the biological nature of recently discovered mysterious microorganisms able to metabolize in the permafrost (i.e., permanently frozen ground under the Earth's surface).

"The history of this discovery is very brief," says Panikov. "Before 1990 microbiologists strongly believed that even psychrophilic or cold-loving microorganisms do require liquid water to grow and multiply, and below zero they mainly survive switching to cell division after temporary warming of the polar ice or permafrost above the freezing point. In 1990-96, when environmental scientists started intensive year-round recording of gas emission from soils to atmosphere, they found sizeable winter activity of the tundra microbial community."

In laboratory experiments conducted in 2000 and 2004, Panikov and others, using sensitive radioisotope technique, detected respiratory activity of microorganisms down to -40C, the temperature interval which is already close to that on Mars' and Jupiter's natural satellites.

The particular goal of the of the current NSF project is to present convincing evidence that recorded respiration (formation of 14CO2 from added frozen 14C-glucose) is not an artifact, and that respective ultra-psychrophiles do exist in real sub-freezing environments such as Alaskan permafrost.

To prove it, Panikov will rely on the power of novel molecular DNA/RNA techniques combined with attempts to 'domesticate' these organisms: to isolate them and cultivate them on artificial media.

"The major technical problem is that their activity and growth rate is extremely low," says Panikov. "From mathematical models, I have calculated that expected generation time of these bugs should be up to 10 years at -20C and probably could be reduced to several months just below zero. We plan to find the preferential substrate for these bacteria, and then label their ribosomal and mRNAs with following separation of labeled product from the rest of nucleic acids, PCR amplification, cloning and sequencing."

The Alaskan tundra was found to be an important trigger in recent global climatic changes: warming caused degradation of permafrost and stimulated microbial decomposition, converting the tundra from a 'sink' to a net source of CO2-to-atmosphere. The understanding, prediction and mitigation of the observed climate and atmospheric changes critically depend on knowledge of permafrost microbiology. Broader impacts of the research include more reliable climate predictions, insights into life on other planets under ultracold temperatures, and development of highly efficient biocatalysts functioning at below freezing temperatures.

Source: Eurekalert & others

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