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Probing Microbes of the Deep: Maine Science Lab Breaks New Ground
11/20/2012   Reported By: Jay Field

For many years, scientists questioned whether life could survive in the deepest oceans, or far beneath the surface of the earth. But groundbreaking research over the past decade has put an end to those questions. And now, a scientist - and the lab he works at in Maine - will be playing a key role in sequencing the DNA of microbes that have lived in the deep subsurface of the the earth for millions of years. Jay Field reports.

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Originally Aired: 11/20/2012 5:30 PM

The more than 300 micro-organisms come from deep ocean drilling sites and gold mines in South Africa. Mapping their genomes will begin in East Boothbay, at the Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences, where Ramunas Stepanauskas is a senior researcher.

Stepanauskas and some colleagues have invented technology that allows them to separate out individual cells, without having to cultivate them. "And then, after that amplification, we are able to apply DNA sequencing," he says.

Stepanauskas says the genetic mapping has the potential to yield significant new information about the evolutionary nature of life on earth and the geologic processes that created the world we live in.

"So we have this natural experiment where we can look at how these microbes evolved in total isolation for a very long period of time. Which gets into very practical things like how do pathogens - how do they evolve, how they may become more or less virulent, how antibiotic resistence is acquired," he says.

Scientists hope to learn how climate change might be affecting the biology of these microbes. Once Stepanauskas and his colleagues at Bigelow isolate the individual cells and their DNA, the lab will then ship the material out to California, where scientists will do the sequencing at the U.S. Department of Energy's Joint Genome Institute.

Jim Bristow is Deputy Director of Science Programs at the Institute. Bristow says the mapping could also answer a range of energy-related questions, which is a big reason for the federal government's participation.

"We, in some environments, are looking for microorganisms that turn uranium from soluable to insoluable forms, as a way of cleaning up contaminated sites," he says. "That's one particular realm. Another is looking at organisms with activities that might be of use for production of, say, biofuels."

And Bigelow's Stepanauskas says the ability of these microbes to survive in places once believed to be hostile to life may begin to tell us more about the possibilities of life on other planets.


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