Microbes Surviving In Deep Permafrost

Aug 19, 2003
Microbes survive deep permafrost
By Becky McCall

Typically bacteria in the permafrost are in a dormant state
Microbes in the Alaskan permafrost have been found living in temperatures as low as minus 40 degrees Celsius.

The discovery raises concerns that the activity of these bacteria, once thought inactive at such extreme temperatures, could be making a considerable contribution to greenhouse gas production.

Scientists found that bacteria taken from the Alaskan tundra soil release gases during energy production whilst apparently in a frozen state.

This runs contrary to textbook biology, which dictates the need for freely available water to allow these single-celled life forms to function.

Typically, bacteria in the permafrost are in a dormant state

Dr Nicolai Panikov
Dr Nicolai Panikov, from the Stevens Institute of Technology, New Jersey, US, and colleague, Dr Vladimir Romanovsky, from the University of Alaska, tested the mixture of bacteria and registered the production of gases; by-products of metabolism.

"Typically, bacteria in the permafrost are in a dormant state but we have found that they reproduce very slowly and respire producing gases including CO2 and methane when frozen," Dr Panikov said.

Frozen cells

Water is considered essential for life, whether at the single-cell level, such as in bacteria, or in larger animals. It helps the exchange of essential gases between the bacteria and the outside.

So the discovery of bacteria, thought to be frozen solid at such extreme temperatures, raises many interesting questions about the survival mechanisms used in these harsh conditions.

Click here to see how much Arctic permafrost is projected to disappear in the coming decades

More details

"We have found that it is not pure ice but the mixture of ice and mineral particles that allows for the exchange of gases," Dr Panikov told BBC News website.

"One explanation is that the bacteria oxidise substances in the permafrost to generate heat inside themselves or that these microbes create anti-freeze compounds that keep water liquefied inside their cells."

Permafrost covers about one fifth of the world's land surface and is frozen over most of Alaska, Northern Canada and Siberia, from depths of a few centimetres to 300m (1,000ft). Long considered a major carbon sink, recent evidence suggests that the permafrost is thawing as global temperatures rise.

Even a small increase in temperature will have a significant increase on the rate of metabolic activity in these bacteria affecting the biochemistry of the soil.

If the activity of these bacteria was incorporated into models of climate change prediction, the permafrost may take on the role of a source of greenhouse gases rather than a sink.

Permafrost is permanent year-round frozen ground
Soils many cm below surface never rise above 0C
Only top few cm thaw in summer - "active layer"
Many regions have been like this for 1,000s of years
Major thaw changes water distribution in ecosystem
Sequestered carbon released; buildings destabilised
"Our results predict the rate of actual degradation- it shows that it's not necessary for the temperature to rise to freezing point for the stimulation of the degradation process," said Dr Panikov.

Knut Stamnes, Professor of atmospheric physics at Stevens, believes that as the permafrost thaws the greatest threat comes from methane.

"Methane is more important than CO2 in producing greenhouse gases because the atmosphere is relatively saturated with CO2 but not with methane yet. This is a new area for exploration." said Professor Stamnes.

Life forms on other planets

In fact, methane gas was recently found by the European Space Agency (Esa) Mars Express mission in the lower atmosphere of the Red Planet and has been associated with ground ice, fuelling speculation about a biological source of the methane.

Permafrost covers about one fifth of the world's land surface
Professor Dawn Sumner, associate professor of geology at the University of California-Davis, advises the US space agency (Nasa) Mars Exploration and Analysis Group.

She believes that the 2007 Phoenix Lander mission to Mars will have increased access to potentially habitable zones and that if life does exist, it is likely to be found in ice first.

"Panikov's results could extend our concept of possible habitable zones to colder temperatures than previously envisioned," said Professor Sumner.

"If low temperature life does exist on another planet, we are likely to find it in ice first because we have identified many very cold, icy environments, but very few environments with liquid water, especially ones that are accessible to robotic missions."

More details on the bacteria research are due to be published in the Soil Biology & Biochemistry journal.



Justified & Ancient
Jan 9, 2004
30 k years old frozen bacteria wakes up

Frozen bacterium adds to Mars speculation
A newly-discovered life form that froze on Earth 30,000 years ago was apparently alive all that time and started swimming as soon as it thawed, a NASA scientist reports.

Richard Hoover, of NASA's Marshall Space Flight Centre in Alabama, says the find has implications for possible contemporary life on Mars.

The organism - a bacterium dubbed Carnobacterium pleistocenium - probably flourished in the Pleistocene Age, along with woolly mammoths and sabre-tooth tigers.

Dr Hoover discovered the bacterium near the town of Fox, Alaska, in a tunnel drilled through permafrost - a mix of permanently frozen ice, soil and rock.

"When they cut into the Fox tunnel, they actually cut through Pleistocene ice wedges, which are similar to structures that we see on Mars," Dr Hoover said.

Dr Hoover says these ice wedges contain a golden-brown layer about half-a-metre thick, and this layer contained a group of microscopic brownish bacteria.

"These bacteria that had just thawed out of the ice... were swimming around," he said.

"The instant the ice melted, they started swimming. They were alive... but they had been frozen for over 30,000 years."

Dr Hoover says this discovery, coupled with research released this week by the European Space Agency, makes it more likely that life could be found on Mars.

Life on Mars

Scientists have focused on Mars as the most likely spot in our solar system for Earth-like life, but none has so far been confirmed.

What has been found is ample evidence that water once flowed on the currently cold and frost-locked planet.

This is significant because liquid water - not ice - has been seen as a prerequisite for life as it is known on Earth.

Images made by the European Mars Express space probe indicate a giant frozen sea near the Martian equator, the first time scientists have detected evidence of ice beyond Mars' polar caps.

Dr Hoover says this vast sea is covered by a layer of dust, which might be heated by the sun and could conduct heat down to create sub-surface layers of water from time to time.

"Those layers would be ideal regions for microbiological activity and so that means that the presence of this frozen sea, if that turns out to be precisely what's going on, it greatly enhances the possibility that there may be life existing on Mars today," he said.

The discovery of the living bacteria in Alaska's permafrost raises another possibility, Dr Hoover says.

"The other thing that's exciting: Just like we found in the Fox tunnel of Alaska, frozen biology in the form of unicellular bacteria might even have remained alive, frozen in the Martian sea," he said.

Dr Hoover found the bacterium in 2000, but it took five years to confirm that it was in fact a new form of life.

The finding was published in January in the International Journal of Systematic and Evolutionary Microbiology, the official journal of record for such matters
http://www.abc.net.au/news/newsitems/20 ... 310099.htm
Anyone care to speculate on how the process of re-animation works? There must be some applications for whatever is going on... Hopefully it is a 'nice' bacteria...


Justified & Ancient
Feb 5, 2011

Siberia fills the heads of scientists with dreams of resurrection. For millions of years, its tundra has gradually turned to permafrost, entombing animals and other organisms in ice. Some of their remains are exquisitely well preserved — so well, in fact, that some scientists have nibbled on the meat of woolly mammoths.

Some researchers even hope to find viable mammoth cells that they can use to clone the animals back from extinction. And in 2012, Russian scientists reported coaxing a seed buried in the permafrost for 32,000 years to sprout into a flower.

Now a team of French and Russian researchers has performed a resurrection of a more sinister nature. From Siberian permafrost more than 30,000 years old, they have revived a virus that’s new to science.

“To pull out a virus that’s 30,000 years old and actually grow it, that’s pretty impressive,” said Scott O. Rogers of Bowling Green State University who was not involved in the research. “This goes well beyond what anyone else has done.”

The thawed virus, which infects amoebae, is not a threat to humans. But if the new study holds up to scrutiny, it raises the possibility that disease-causing viruses may also be lurking in the permafrost.

The new virus was discovered by a group of researchers led by Chantal Abergel and Jean-Michel Claverie, a wife-and-husband team at Aix-Marseille University in France. Dr. Abergel and Dr. Claverie are veteran virus hunters, specializing in finding new species of so-called giant viruses.

Familiar viruses are tiny and have few genes. The influenza virus, for example, has 13 genes and is about 100 nanometers across. But giant viruses, which typically infect amoebae, can be 1,000 times bigger and have more than 2,500 genes.

Researchers at the Russian Academy of Sciences sent Dr. Abergel and Dr. Claverie small pieces of permafrost extracted from a Siberian riverbank in 2000.

To search for giant viruses in the samples, the French researchers added bits of the permafrost to colonies of amoebae to see if any viruses in the permafrost could infect them. The amoebae began to die — a sign that something in the permafrost was killing them. When the scientists examined the colonies, they discovered that giant viruses were multiplying inside the amoebae.

Measuring 1.5 micrometers long, the viruses are 25 percent bigger than any virus previously found. Their oddly long, narrow shape inspired the scientists to call them pithoviruses — “pithos” referring to ancient Greek earthenware jars.

“Sixty percent of its gene content doesn’t resemble anything on earth,” Dr. Abergel said. She and her colleagues suspect that pithoviruses may be parasitic survivors of life forms that were very common early in the history of life.

The scientists describe the pithoviruses this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“Its potential implications for evolutionary theory and health are quite astonishing,” said Eske Willerslev, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Copenhagen. Nonetheless, he said he didn’t think the scientists had fully ruled out the possibility that their samples had been contaminated with young viruses. “Without it, such claims remain nothing but biological curiosities,” Dr. Willerslev said.

Dr. Abergel and Dr. Claverie acknowledged the possibility of contamination. But they noted that they had performed the experiment three times and obtained the same virus from the permafrost each time.

It’s even possible that some of those viruses could infect humans instead of amoebae. Dr. Abergel and Dr. Claverie consider it a worrying possibility.

Dr. Rogers considered the risk of an outbreak of resurrected viruses to be “extremely low,” pointing out that scientists have been excavating permafrost and ice for decades without any known infections.

“But there’s always the first instance, right?” he added.


Devoted Cultist
Dec 23, 2012
I'm pretty sure I've seen a horror movie (or three) based on this kind of thing...

(incidently, wasn't this one of the plot ideas for Jurassic Park 4?)
Aug 19, 2003
This one is only 700 years frozen.

Earlier this year, researchers brought an ancient giant virus back to life. Now, they have recovered more viral genetic material—this time from frozen caribou feces. For more than 5 millennia, caribou have grazed shrubs and grasses on ice patches atop the Selwyn Mountains in Canada. The animals congregate on the subarctic ice patches during warm summer seasons to escape heat and biting insects, leaving layers of feces on the ground. After drilling ice core containing thousands of years of accumulated caribou dung (shown above), scientists recovered the complete genome of a DNA virus and the partial genome of an RNA virus from frozen feces dated to 700 years old, they report online today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Genetic sequencing identified the RNA genome as a member of the insect-infecting Cripavirus genus, but the DNA viral genome was more mysterious: It was unlike any sequenced present-day viruses, but distantly related to plant-infecting geminiviruses. So the researchers reconstructed the DNA virus and introduced it to Nicotiana benthamiana, a close relative of tobacco that’s vulnerable to a diverse range of plant viruses. The resurrected virus successfully infected both new leaves and leaves inoculated with the virus. The researchers suggest that the viruses may have originated in plants eaten by the caribou or in flying insects attracted to their feces. As Arctic ice melts faster with climate change, it could release ancient viral particles into the environment—some of which could remain infectious, the team warns.

http://news.sciencemag.org/biology/2014 ... ribou-dung
Aug 19, 2003
And now a missing link microbe - with tentacles. Let's call it the Cthuhlu Microbe.

Patience proved the key ingredient to what researchers are saying may be an important discovery about how complex life evolved.

After 12 years of trying, a team in Japan has grown an organism from mud on the seabed that they say could explain how simple microbes evolved into more sophisticated eukaryotes. Eukaryotes are the group that includes humans, other animals, plants, and many single-celled organisms. The microbe can produce branched appendages, which may have helped it corral and envelop bacteria that helped it—and, eventually, all eukaryotes—thrive in a world full of oxygen.

“This is the work that many people in the field have been waiting for,” says Thijs Ettema, an evolutionary microbiologist at Wageningen University in the Netherlands. The finding has not yet been published in a peer-reviewed journal, but on Twitter, other scientists reviewing a preprint on it have already hailed it as the “paper of the year” and the “moon landing for microbial ecology.”