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Laundry cleaners from the Arctic

Lab and Library: — Aviaja Lyberth Hauptmann writes in to tell us how frozen greenlandic bacteria can spell our doom, or clean our laundry

The image is this:

An ice-sheet on which a polar bear is standing breaks off, and begins melting slowly as it sails south. The bear starts swimming, in a vain attempt to find some solid ground, only to slowly become exhausted, give up the fight against the freezing waves, and inextricably drowns. The picture breaks our hearts and draws our attention to the subject of climate change.

Lab and Library

In our Lab and Library series, PhD students and Postdocs from the University of Copenhagen write in to share their stories about science and research.

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I reckon that the study of bacterial genetics from frozen dirt in Greenland is in its own way also a study of the drowning polar bear.

Frozen bacteria can kill…

The bacterial community living in frozen dirt, or permafrost, has access to a carbon-reservoir so large, that it amounts to all the carbon found in the entire atmosphere and all living plants on our planet.

For now the permafrost stays frozen and its carbon reservoir lies dormant. But in time, rising temperatures may thaw the permafrost, something that has already begun, and the bacterial community will change in ways yet unkown. What is known, is that this will have a great impact on the dirt’s carbon reservoir.

It is possible that the bacteria from the dirt, if it thaws, will release greenhouse gases to the atmosphere and thereby create a huge leap forward in global warming. Thereby also affecting the living conditions for the greatest hunter walking on earth, the polar bear.

…or save us

Another possibility is that the bacteria will form an environment that is favorable to plants – a green oasis that may then extract greenhouse gasses from the atmosphere, limit global warming, and maybe even help agricultural developments in the Arctic.

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By looking into the genetics of bacteria in permafrost we can better understand the way these bacteria react and which of the above possibilities is most likely to happen if the permafrost thaws.

Besides enabling us to look into the fate of our planet, bacterial genetics are in themselves a goldmine of opportunities for business ventures into sustainable products.

Bacteria — big business

Let’s look at the DNA of bacteria. Genes are the blueprints of everything an organism is able to do, including what enzymes it produces. Some enzymes may help release greenhouse gases from dirt, while others can remove stains from our dirty laundry.

Many everyday products make use of the efficient biological machinery of enzymes. Among those are laundry powder and toothpaste. But enzymes can do much more than clean clothes and teeth. Every living organism in every single environment on earth is able to create hundreds and even thousands of enzymes each, and altogether these enzymes are able to catalyze millions of different processes — processes that may be useful to us as humans.

Best of all, enzymes are not poisonous or harmful to the environment, so processes that make use of enzymes are often “greener” than processes that may do the same but with the use of chemistry or physical force.

Of local folklore and myth

The more extreme an environment, the more extreme adaptations are needed to survive these environments. Survival at temperatures above 100ºC, below freezing, or in highly acidic environments, isn’t easy. Organisms, especially tiny ones like bacteria, are very carefully adapted on a genetic level to ensue their survival, and those adaptions translate into enzymes that function in severe conditions.

Greenland is huge and harbours many rare and extreme environments. In collaboration with the Greenland Institute of Natural Resources, part of my PhD project will be to investigate further rare and extreme environments from Greenland through tales of the local peoples. These environments may harbour bacteria with industrially relevant enzymes, and may also give rise to opportunities for a Greenland-based biotechnological industry.

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