Extremophiles found in a lake, and this is great news for biotech

13 Oct 2016

Freshwater lake. Image: Kichigin/Shutterstock

In an unlikely twist, the creatures that thrive in some of the world’s harshest locations are also fans of just about every condition, and their abundance is good news for biotech on an industrial scale.

When we talk about extremophiles, we usually think of the strangely cute tardigrade or ‘water bear’ that has been found to be capable of surviving nearly anything thrown at it, including the vacuum of space.

Typically however, they have been found on Earth in freezing Arctic conditions or near boiling hot volcanoes, hence their name.

Future Human

Can survive same conditions as household bleach

But new research published in Biology Letters by a team from the University of Essex has found that these extremophiles might not be so extreme, having been located in freshwater lakes.

The research team came across samples of the microorganisms in a nearby lake, having become frustrated with the limitations of lab testing and wanting to recreate something as close to natural conditions as possible.

The only problem is that you can’t just test extremophile samples in open water – phytoplankton in this case – as the environmental conditions of a lake would also need to be altered, resulting in serious ecological damage.

So, to get around this problem, the team built an ‘amplifying bioreactor’ that was constantly allowing water from nearby lake drainage and forest watershed to flow in and out of the vessel.

Then, for the sake of science, the team ramped up the water’s acidity to extreme levels, to the point that they would have had the pH equivalent of household bleach or stomach acid.

Astonishingly, the bioreactor was found to contain algae and bacteria that the team had never expected to find.

Could speed up antibiotic research

“The vast abundance and diversity of microorganisms living in even a single drop of water do lead to the expectation that at least a few of these organisms are capable of impressive feats,” said co-author Etienne Low-Decarie.

Having analysed the research, another microbial ecologist who was not involved in the research, Jennifer Martiny, admitted that “it shows again how little we know about the organisation and distribution of microbial communities”.

But where the opportunities really lie with this discovery is the possibility of harnessing more extremophiles for industrial biotech applications than ever before.

By finding ways to harness the enzymes created by extremophiles in water close to a production facility, the chances of finding feasible applications for them increase tenfold if they can be sourced in greater amounts closer to a facility.

Some of the breakthroughs already achieved with these enzymes include biofuels, lactose-free milk and, perhaps most importantly, the production of antibiotics.

“Bioprospecting for industrial relevant organisms with exceptional capacities may thus be done as efficiently in a nearby pond as in exotic extreme locations, such as soda lakes or hot springs,” Low-Decarie said.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic