Katherine Mateos, Carleton College
Life can survive almost anywhere! From hot pools on volcanoes to beneath ice-cold glaciers, pretty much all of the inhabitants in these hostile environments are so small that you cannot see them with your bare eye. These extremophiles, as they are often called, include tiny single-celled microbes—bacteria and archaea. By studying tiny microbes we can answer big questions: How did life begin on Earth? How can we find life on other planets? How will our planet respond to its changing climate?
This summer, I am working with one of these extremophiles, a type of bacteria separated out from a sample from Blood Falls, Antarctica. This lake is a pool of brine (very salty water) covered by more than 150 feet of ice from the Taylor Glacier. Blood Falls gets its name from the bright red stain that the brine leaves on the Taylor glacier as it leaks out from beneath the glacier. As you would expect, this location is cold and dark, but the chemicals in the brine are what truly make this ecosystem extreme. For one, Blood Falls is super salty, over twice as salty as the ocean. Most water has oxygen trapped within it, but Blood Falls has very little. Two important chemicals are also found in unusually high quantities: iron and sulfur.
The bacteria that I am studying makes good use of the iron in this environment. Like a battery produces energy from a variety of chemical reactions, Shewanella (strain BF02) gets most of its energy by harnessing the energy that is released when one chemical form of iron changes to another. However, there might be another source of energy Shewanella can live off of—perhaps a chemical that contains sulfur. Sulfur is one of the most common elements on earth, found in pesticides, foods, and in humans. Sulfur can form compounds with other common elements including hydrogen, carbon, and oxygen. Some of these chemicals, known as volatile organic sulfur compounds (VOSCs), easily evaporate into our atmosphere and affect our environment. We want to know if the Shewanella are creating these VOSCs, and if they do, what chemicals the Shewanella turn into VOSCs.
The strain of Shewanella that I am studying is from an extreme ecosystem but similar Shewanella are found throughout many ocean ecosystems. We can treat Blood Falls as a model to learn about the way that our oceans will affect our environment. Even though Shewanella are too small to see with your bare eyes, figuring out what compounds they break down can help us understand the future of the environment around the world.
Thank you to my mentor, Dr. Peter A. Lee, and our collaborators, Dr. Jill Mikucki and Abigail Jarratt, for their guidance in the research process. This project is supported by the Fort Johnson REU Program, NSF DBI-1757899.
Mikucki, J. A. et al. A contemporary microbially maintained subglacial ferrous ‘ocean’. Science 324, 397–400 (2009).
Sievert, S. M., Kiene, R. P. & Schulz-Vogt, H. N. The sulfur cycle. Oceanography 20, 117–123 (2007).