23 Dec 2006

Interview: Rick Cavicchioli - Life in the freezer

The extremophiles we’re studying love life extremely cold. They live at the bottom of Ace Lake, where there is no oxygen and the average temperature is 1°C. In Deep Lake, they live at temperatures as low as –20ºC in water that is 10 times saltier than the ocean. To study them in Ace Lake, we have to drill a small hole 1.7 m deep through the lake’s icy crust to reach them. Then, using a machine that works a bit like a pool filter, we collect the microorganisms on a membrane as the water flows through.
Even though they’re really small, cold-adapted extremophiles are vital to the health of our whole planet. Most of the Earth’s biosphere, such as the deep ocean and alpine and polar habitats, is cold (less than 5°C).

Someone actually said: “If the last whale swallowed the last panda, it would be a disaster, but it wouldn’t be the end of the world; however, if we destroyed some of the key microorganisms, it could completely prevent the normal cycles of life occurring.” If we can understand the microorganisms here and how they function, what kind of processes they drive and how they affect the atmosphere and the cycling of nutrients, then we’ll have a much better picture of many of the other cold environments on Earth.

But, working out what they do is not just a scientific question. Extremophiles could also be put to good use. Understanding more about their genetic make-up could help in the development of a variety of new technologies. Imagine being able to wash clothes or dishes without using hot water or only tiny amounts of detergent. Because these Antarctic microorganisms are already adapted to the cold, we can use them to develop useful products such as enzymes — like those in cleaning products. These enzymes do not pollute theenvironment, and can therefore replace the more harmful chemicals that are in many detergents.

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