Sunday, April 6, 2008
BioProspecting Nevada’s Geothermal Ecosystems: Dr. Hedlund's Talk at March Mtg
Five years ago, UNLV had a vision to build a world class Microbiology Department. According to Carl Reiber, Ph.D., Associate Dean of the College of Sciences this department’s second hire was Brian Hedlund, Ph.D. Brian is a remarkable teacher and researcher, who according to Dr Reiber produced leading edge microbial studies coupled with extraordinary discoveries of new species. Brian’s innovation and accomplishment contributed to his wining the First NSF Career Award. This 5 year, $800,000 award has supported the development and continued studies of microbes found in the hot springs peppered across the state of Nevada. Since many of these hot springs are found on sacred American Indian sites, a natural extension of the projects became the collaboration with tribal schools to study the integration of cultures, ecological development, geochemistry and environmental impact.
The State of Nevada has hundreds of hot springs, each with diversified chemical composition. These hot springs are the result of a very active tectonically active zone where rifting plates cause the hot springs closer to the surface. In the northwest corner of our state there are three areas that are especially active: Surprise Valley, Great Boiling Springs and Long Valley Caldera. Long Valley is the second largest caldera in the country, with Yellowstone being the first.
The microbes that live in these hot springs are sustained through a number of processes that assimilate carbon for nutrition in temperatures up to 73 degrees Celsius. At this excessively high temperature, no life can exist. It is not completely clear how these organisms work, survive or feed. The variety and diversity of organisms found in these sites is enormous and seasonal changes impact this diversity. There is suspicion that the many hot spring sites are fully independent, contributing to the distinct difference in species in each location. The largest challenge to identifying the many species of microbes found in the hot springs is the hundreds of contaminants from air, water, precipitation and soil.
PCR (Polymerase Chain Reactions) techniques provide fundamental tool in identifying the DNA fingerprint of the hot spring microbes. Thermophilic enzymes, produced by these organisms, are very desirable. These enzymes are stable, especially at high temperatures and high pH, and work quickly to produce the desired effects.
Thermophilic enzymes are used in oil wells to make the oil easier to pump out. They are also used in feed pellets to allow cows to grow faster, building more muscle and milk. They enhance ethanol production and build biomass in plants. A significant usage is the production of alternative fuel. A five way collaboration to break down carbon in sugar is being studied. In Brazil 95% of their fuel comes from sugarcane.
In summary, “There is Gold to be found in Nevada’s Hot Springs”. Geothermal bacteria and viruses are contributing to the development of biofuels, enhanced growth of food and food products, support for ecosystems and possible biomedical usage in the treatment of disease. The opportunities are endless, the collaborations and partnerships are vital and the impact on enhanced quality of life is significant.
Linda Rubinson, Director of Market Development & Strategic Alliances for Nevada Biotechnology and Bioscience Consortium