By Allison M. Heinrichs
Beneath two miles of ice in Greenland, a novel species of unusually small yellow-orange bacteria has been lying dormant for 120,000 years.
On Tuesday, Pennsylvania State University researchers announced they “awakened” the bacteria.
“This organism could have some very unique and useful properties, including perhaps biotechnical ones, like novel enzymes for making antibiotics,” said co-discoverer Vanya Miteva, a senior research associate at Penn State.
The discovery strengthens scientists’ belief that if any life is found on Mars it would be in the red planet’s polar ice caps, where NASA’s Phoenix spacecraft landed over Memorial Day weekend.
“No one knows if there is life on Mars, but if there were, it would have to survive at very low temperatures,” said Jeffrey Lawrence, associate professor of biology at the University of Pittsburgh. “Understanding the extremes of what you find on this planet could help you understand what is possible elsewhere and how to look for it.”
The bacteria, reported at the 108th American Society for Microbiology General Meeting in Boston, is called Chryseobacterium greenlandensis, which means yellow bacteria from Greenland. Only about 10 species of bacteria have been found in polar ice and scientifically characterized.
Chryseobacterium greenlandensis is about 20 times smaller than typical bacteria, making it tiny enough to fit in the microscopic cracks in ice where water stays a liquid and small amounts of nutrients are trapped.
“That’s how they survive in the ice,” said Miteva, who works in the laboratory led by Jean Brenchley, a biochemistry and molecular biology professor at Penn State. “There are tiny liquid veins between the ice crystals. … They are small, but this bacteria will fit in there. Life needs water. If there is not water, there is no life.”
The bacteria was in a column of ice drilled out of a glacier. To revive the oblong bacteria, the scientists slowly melt the ice and then pass it through filters to remove larger bacteria. The ice water was incubated in the cold without oxygen and with little nutrients.
When scientists examined the bacteria with a high-powered microscope, they discovered it dividing and growing.
Brenchley’s team analyzed its genetic material and cross- referenced it against known bacteria. Because it had no matches, they knew it was a new species. It is related to bacteria found in fish, marine mud and the roots of some plants.
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