UMR biologist studies ‘extremophiles’ in Soap Lake, Wash.

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On May 1, 2003

Imagine living in a liquid with the same pH as ammonia and 10 times saltier than seawater. This isn’t the setting for a science fiction book, but a lake in Washington populated with some very special bacteria, which, according to a University of Missouri-Rolla researcher, may have special benefits for humans, from the potential treatment of skin disorders to enzyme-based laundry detergent.

Through her research, Dr. Melanie Mormile, assistant professor of biological sciences at UMR, hopes to learn as much as she can about these unique life forms living in Soap Lake, Wash. These life forms are called "extremophiles" because of the extreme environment they inhabit

Mormile’s work is part of a three-year research project funded by the National Science Foundation. The research group hopes to learn everything it can about the microbial ecology of this unique mini-ecosystem.

The bacteria are collected at Soap Lake and transported to Mormile’s lab at UMR, where she and her graduate students perform more in-depth research. Mormile’s research found that the bacteria create many of the sulfides that, along with the high alkaline and saline environment, might aid in treating skin conditions. But they don’t yet know why.

"One important question is to find out what the bacteria are consuming," says Mormile. The proposed sources of food for the extremophiles are algae blooms and zooplankton. Once the group understands the nutrient cycles of the lake, it can make a model and apply it to similar sites around the world.

With its high pH and salinity, Soap Lake is unique in that it has not turned over in more than 2,000 years.

"Normally, lakes turn over twice a year due to temperature changes in the water," Mormile explains. Throughout the year, material like dead algae with all their nutrients accumulate at the bottom of the lake. During the summer months, the bottom of the lake stays cool while the surface gets warm, trapping the nutrients at the bottom. As fall approaches, the temperature throughout the whole lake becomes the same and mixing or turnover can occur.

Soap Lake’s shape and high bottom salt content prevent it from turning over, trapping those nutrients.

"The bottom section of the lake contains so much salt it’s like syrup," said Mormile. In the past, the lake was known for its medicinal qualities, and people came from all over the world seeking relief from skin conditions using the high-alkali lake mud.

Even though Soap Lake is one of the few places this unique ecology exists, it may be in trouble from the nearby community of the same name. The city itself is among the poorest in Washington state and subsists largely on money from tourism, says Mormile. Nearby Lake Lenore is already being drained and turned into a freshwater body in hopes of bringing more tourists to the area. Mormile hopes her research, as well as other projects, will create enough interest to prevent a similar fate for Soap Lake.

"Many of these extremophiles are not well researched and no one knows what ways they could benefit mankind," says Mormile. In the future, the researchers hope to study possible medicinal aspects of the lake and its bacteria.

"Just studying this unique environment is exciting — finding new microorganisms, trying to figure out what they’re doing and how they interact with the nutrients present," says Mormile. "Because of the activities they’re involved in, these bacteria might have useful enzymes present."

A common example of applying such useful enzymes successfully is laundry detergent. An enzyme used to break down protein stains in laundry detergent originated in an alkali-loving bacteria.

Mormile also plans to study the biological degradation of pollutants that may occur in Soap Lake. By studying the presence of hydrocarbons from a road near the lake, she hopes to determine if the Soap Lake bacteria can break down those pollutants and if so, how. The study could have massive ecological implications for cleaning the environment.

NOTE: This release was written by UMR students Joe Cohn, a sophomore in mining engineering from Rocky Mount, Mo., and John Combs, a junior in mining engineering from Arnold, Mo., as a technical writing class project.

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On May 1, 2003. Posted in Research