UMR biologists uncover new genus of bacteria in Washington lake

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On May 21, 2004

University of Missouri-Rolla biologists studying the mineral-rich waters of Soap Lake in Washington state recently discovered a new genus of bacteria in the lake. Their findings will be presented at the General Meeting of the American Society for Microbiology to be held May 23-27 in New Orleans.

The bacteria, "Nitrumincola lacisaponis," was isolated from a sample of pink-tinted driftwood collected from the shore of Soap Lake by Dr. Melanie Mormile, an environmental microbiologist and associate professor of biological sciences at UMR.

"While it is too early to know potential uses of this novel bacterium without further study, we’re excited about the rich microbial diversity of the lake," Mormile said.

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

Through an enrichment process, Pedro Dimitriu, one of Mormile’s graduate students, found and isolated four colonies of bacteria from the pink driftwood sample. He then ran basic physiological studies and began genetic testing, extracting and sequencing the DNA of the bacteria samples. By running the sequenced DNA through a BLAST search (the Basic Local Alignment Search Tool), a computer explored all available DNA sequence databases, comparing the sample to all known DNA sequences and allowed Dimitriu to determine that one of those colonies of bacteria was a new genus.

Dimitriu believes his research has great ecological significance. In just this one sample tested, he found a new genus of bacteria. Dimitriu can only imagine what other biological treasures the lake may hold.

"This lake is basically in the middle of the desert," Dimitriu says. "Finding these new bacteria shows that rain forests aren’t the only sources of biodiversity that need to be protected. Soap Lake needs to be protected, and this will help prove it needs to be in the future."

The Soap Lake Microbial Observatory project is funded by a three-year, $850,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to study the unique community of life forms found throughout the stratified lake’s water column, including its dense lower layer. Mormile, Dr. Holly Pinkart, of Central Washington University and Dr. Brent Peyton of Washington State University are co-principal investigators.

Mormile and Dimitriu also presented their findings at the annual meeting of the Soap Lake Conservancy in early May. In September, they will present more details on the microbial diversity of Soap Lake at technical conferences in Ljubljana, Slovenia, and Chesapeake Bay, Va.

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On May 21, 2004. Posted in Research