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U. of Colorado researchers hunting down, studying new microorganisms

University of Colorado at Boulder

CU-Boulder graduate student Elizabeth Costello samples sediments from a pool of snowmelt at 11.900 feet at the Niwot Ridge site west of Boulder in 2005.
Photo courtesy CU-Boulder

The National Science Foundation has awarded a University of Colorado at Boulder research group $1.75 million to identify and analyze a potpourri of microbes new to science that are residing in the harsh, cold climate of Colorado's high mountains.

Led by CU-Boulder ecology and evolutionary biology department Professor Steve Schmidt, the group will build on its discovery of several new kingdoms of life previously unknown to science that were found west of Boulder two years ago. Although 18th century scientists divided the kingdoms of life into two groups -- plants and animals -- sophisticated DNA studies indicate there may be a dozen or more additional kingdoms made up of groups of newly described fungi and single-cell organisms, he said.

Funded by NSF's Microbial Observatories Program, much of the CU-Boulder work will focus on microorganisms living under snowfields and glaciers, Schmidt said. The new microorganisms reported by the team in 2003 were found at altitudes of 11,000 to 13,000 feet in an inhospitable region marked by nine months of snow and three months of intense sun and high winds, he said.

"The research should help us understand how the cold regions of Earth function, and how the biosphere will respond to future climate change," said Schmidt. "The research could also lead to the discovery of new antibiotics, as well as industrial enzymes that function at cold temperatures."

A 2003 study published by Schmidt and his colleagues in Science magazine showed several groups of previously unknown fungi are churning away under the snow in the dead of winter, breaking down organic and inorganic material and recycling carbon and nitrogen at a higher than expected rate. The CU-Boulder findings are causing scientists to re-evaluate estimates of natural carbon dioxide fluctuations on Earth, said Schmidt.

"We don't yet know the full extent of CO2 fluxes under the snowpack in cold regions of the world, or how diminished snowpack around the world resulting from climate warming may affect the global CO2 budget," said Schmidt.

CU-Boulder Professor Steve Schmidt probes a crevasse in the Peruvian Andres for microbial life.
Photo courtesy CU-Boulder

The interdisciplinary research team includes CU-Boulder faculty with expertise in microbiology, biogeochemistry, evolutionary biology and bioinformatics. In addition to Schmidt, team members include geological sciences Assistant Professor Jason Neff, EEB Professor Andrew Martin and EEB Assistant Professor Robert Guralnick, also a University of Colorado Museum curator. The NSF award is for five years.

The new NSF research grant also will support the work of two undergraduates, two graduate students and two postdoctoral fellows, said Schmidt.

The team is using a novel technique that extracts DNA from the soil to pinpoint the new groups of microbes and polymerase chain reaction, or PCR, to amplify and identify them, providing a snapshot of the microscopic diversity in the high alpine region, he said. "A major thrust of the new grant is to attempt to grow some of these novel organisms in the laboratory so that they can be fully studied from a physiological and genetic perspective," he said.

Schmidt said scientists now categorize life in three domains: archaea, which often live in extreme environments; bacteria; and eucarya, which have cells with membranes around their DNA and range from single-celled organisms to fungi, plants and animals. The team is concentrating its efforts on undiscovered archaea and bacteria and is continuing its work on the eucarya, he said.

The new cold-region microbes could be of interest to industrial chemists searching for enzymes that work at low temperatures, which could be used to drive chemical reactions normally requiring large amounts of heat, the team said.

Several of the study sites are located at NSF's Niwot Ridge Long Term Ecological Research site located adjacent to CU's Mountain Research Station near Ward, Colo. The university's Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research administers the site for NSF.

The team also is conducting microbial research at several other study sites at mountain ranges in New Zealand and Peru as part of a separate grant from the National Geographic Society.

Alpine regions around the world have seen decreases in snow cover in recent years as a result of climate change, said Schmidt. "We are racing to identify new species and archive them in the laboratory before bigger changes occur and they disappear."

About 40 percent of Earth's terrestrial environment is covered by snow for varying lengths of time in the winter months, he said. "The amount of microbial activity is probably very high in places like Canada, Alaska and Siberia that have enormous amounts of snowpack over large areas for extended periods."


Note to Editors: Images of the research sites are available by contacting Jim Scott at (303) 492-3114 or

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