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Hot Microbes in the Frozen North

Is there anywhere UC Davis scientists will not go in search of weird microbes? In 2008, Bekah Shepard was piloting a miniature submarine in Pavilion Lake, British Columbia, in a NASA-supported expedition to study “living rocks” called microbialites. Last year, Shepard and geology professor Dawn Sumner spent several weeks camped out near a lake in Antarctica, again diving under feet of ice to study microbialites. Sumner is planning another trip south this Fall, according to her blog.

Now Russell Neches, a graduate student in Jonathan Eisen’s lab at the UC Davis Genome Center, is headed into the Kamchatka Peninsula in Russia. Kamchatka is full of volcanoes which create a lot of hot, sulfurous pools full of rich brews of chemicals. The microbes that can live in those pools are literally like nothing else on Earth.

Neches has two goals in this expedition: studying these microbes in their natural habitat, and sharing the experience of “doing science” with the public.

I’ve been asked by my thesis advisor to write about, photograph, tweet and film as much of the field expedition and the workshop as possible, and present it as an example of what it’s like to actually do science. My goal is to present the company, the food, the work, the travel, the joys, the annoyances, the surprises, the good, the bad, and the ridiculous.

Neches has already come up with a nice analogy for volcanic pools:

My favorite way to explain how there could be so much variety in volcanic liquids is to think about coffee. It’s possible to make several very different kinds of coffee from the same beans. If you grind them very fine, pack them tightly, and force steam through the grounds at high pressure, you get espresso. If you grind them even finer and suspend them in hot water as a colloid, you get Turkish coffee. If you grind them coarsely, suspend them in water, and remove them with a sieve, you get French-style coffee. If you grind them moderately, put them in a filter cone, and pour hot water through them, you get American-style drip coffee. They each taste totally different, despite being made from exactly the same ingredients.

Now, instead of coffee grounds, imagine many layers of rock, each with different chemistry, packing density, and thickness. Rocks, by the way, are pretty complicated things, and can be made out of almost anything. Practically every source of volcanic liquid from around the world has a unique chemical composition.

This variety is one of the reasons microbiologists are so interested in the organisms that live in these liquids.

Follow Russell’s adventures at vort.org.

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