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Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Tough Bugs: What are they and how can they help us?

Kate Stanton, the hero of our novel Obelisk Seven, is a microbiologist. Her quest in the novel is to find out what type of microbe is eating the carbon in oil and coal deposits. Part of our story revolves around her search for similar microbes, and we found ourselves diving down rabbitholes in researching the fascinating world of what is called extremophiles.
We call them Tough Bugs in this blog, because that describes what these little microbes are like, and it's much shorter. And more vivid ...
Extremism is in the eye of the beholder ...
We look at things from our own  human-centric point of view. An environment that is extreme for us is just plain old normal for some of these tough bugs. We call these environments extreme depending on factors such as pressure, acidity, salinity, radiation level, lack of oxygen or water, toxins or temperature.
Some bacteria can survive in the enormous pressures found up to eleven kilometers below sea level; others make a go of it in hydrothermal vents in the oceans where temperatures above 100 degrees centigrade are common; still others can live in frigid cold, or in vacuums.
Take the tardigrade -  or water bear. It can survive in the vacuum of space!
The tardigrade or Water Bear
 Bacteria that had been entombed in Alaskan ice for thousands of years and then thawed
out, woke up and resumed their activities as if nothing Rip van Winkle-like had happened!
In a later post we will check out the tough bugs in Mono Lake in California, which is very salty, filled with sulfides and has alkaline mud. Water flows into Mono Lake but not out; as the water evaporates chemicals and minerals become highly concentrated. Microbes can survive in these extreme conditions. Some microbes even live two miles below the surface of the earth, in a gold mine in South Africa.
I am a Caver, not a Spelunker ...
Diana Northup and her fellow SLIMErs (members of the Subsurface Life In Mineral Environments team) study things that live in caves. She first dived down into a cave as a college student in 1966, and got hooked by the mystery of the life in the darkness she found there.
Diana Northup in cave
She says that SLIMErs prefer to be called Cavers, not Spelunkers – I can't blame her: much nicer ring to Cavers, and far fewer rhyming downsides ...
What are they looking investigating? How microbes help form the colorful ferroganganese deposits coating the walls of Lechuguilla (the deepest cave in the US, at 1,000 feet) and Spider Cave in Carlsbad Caverns National Park, and the diversity of microbes in a hydrogen sulfide cave in Mexico.
What are they looking for? Clues to the earliest life on earth, and to possible life in outer space.
Like sperm on testosterone ...

In an interview with NOVA, Diana spoke about the Tough Bugs she studies:
We think we're superior beings, but these guys are really where it's at ... Yeah, I get pretty attached to them, because I think they're pretty cool-looking. Some of the ones I see have long stalks; they look like sperm on testosterone. Some of them look like braided ropes. They're really cool. And the stuff they produce is just incredible. I can go on and on about blue goo and slime balls and "snottites," the slimy bacterial stalactites found in Cueva de Villa Luz. My husband teases me about whether he should start enticing me with manganese slime.
The SLIMErs have other pet names for some of the denizens of the deep they encounter while caving – such as hairy sausages, beads on a string, and phlegm balls. No Johns or Susans or Richards or Samanthas for this lot!
NOVA asked Diana what was so cool about snottites and manganese slime. Her answer:
Snottites
Well, take snottites.
When you're in Cueva de Villa Luz, you see these things that look just like a two-year-old's runny nose, and when you look at them with the scanning electron microscope, they're nothing but bacteria and mucilaginous products and a little bit of minerals that get produced from these microbes.
They're so tiny that we can't see them, yet they can build up these snottite structures that can then, if you use your imagination a bit, turn to rock and represent some of the formations we see in caves such as Lechuguilla.
 The Man from Moscow and Purple Bacteria ...
The Holy Grail of cheap and abundant, eco-friendly fuel might be the ability to use hydrogen to replace fossil fuels. Right now, our manufacturing processes for producing hydrogen for use as a bio-fuel are not very efficient.
Dr. Sergei Markov
This opens up an opportunity for using bacteria to do the job. That's where Dr. Sergei Markov comes in. A professor of biology, Markov received his Ph.D in microbiology masters degree in biochemistry and physiology from the Moscow State University in Russia. He is a professor at DePauw University in Greencastle, West Virginia.
Markov has plunged into alternative fuel research, and hit the headlines in recent years by developing a prototype bioreactor that uses a purple bacterium known as Rubrivivax gelatinosus to produce enough hydrogen to power a small motor.
Markov believes this purple bacteria holds  out a lot of promise for an cheap alternative to fossil fuels for vehicles:
"Certain purple bacteria, which usually grow in the mud of various ponds and lakes have the ability to convert water and carbon monoxide into hydrogen gas,” Markov said in the June 5, 2008, edition of Science Daily. “The problem was how to effectively supply each bacterial cell in a liquid bacterial soup with gaseous carbon monoxide.”
Purple Bacteria
The purple bacteria usually grow in the mud of ponds and lakes; they are able to convert water and carbon monoxide into hydrogen gas. Although carbon monoxide is not readily available, Markov believes it could be produced from biomass, or by involving other bacteria that produce carbon monoxide. This would mean one set of bacteria producing a fuel to be used by the purple bacteria to produce cheap, eco-friendly hydrogen to fuel our cars and trucks.
There we have it: with a little bit of help from their friends, purple bacteria could end up helping us fuel our cars.
Way to go, Tough Bugs! We're right behind you!

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