NSF funds Panikov's Alaskan Tundra Microbial Observatory project

December 15, 2004

HOBOKEN, N.J. -- A grant has been awarded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) to Drs. Nicolai S. Panikov (PI, Stevens Institute of Technology) and Vladimir Romanovsky (Co-PI, University of Alaska, Fairbanks) to establish a Microbial Observatory project in the Alaskan tundra. The long-term challenge is to identify the biological nature of recently discovered mysterious microorganisms able to metabolize in the permafrost (i.e., permanently frozen ground under the Earth's surface).

"The history of this discovery is very brief," says Panikov. "Before 1990 microbiologists strongly believed that even psychrophilic or cold-loving microorganisms do require liquid water to grow and multiply, and below zero they mainly survive switching to cell division after temporary warming of the polar ice or permafrost above the freezing point. In 1990-96, when environmental scientists started intensive year-round recording of gas emission from soils to atmosphere, they found sizeable winter activity of the tundra microbial community."

In laboratory experiments conducted in 2000 and 2004, Panikov and others, using sensitive radioisotope technique, detected respiratory activity of microorganisms down to -40C, the temperature interval which is already close to that on Mars' and Jupiter's natural satellites.

The particular goal of the of the current NSF project is to present convincing evidence that recorded respiration (formation of 14CO2 from added frozen 14C-glucose) is not an artifact, and that respective ultra-psychrophiles do exist in real sub-freezing environments such as Alaskan permafrost.

To prove it, Panikov will rely on the power of novel molecular DNA/RNA techniques combined with attempts to 'domesticate' these organisms: to isolate them and cultivate them on artificial media.

"The major technical problem is that their activity and growth rate is extremely low," says Panikov. "From mathematical models, I have calculated that expected generation time of these bugs should be up to 10 years at -20C and probably could be reduced to several months just below zero. We plan to find the preferential substrate for these bacteria, and then label their ribosomal and mRNAs with following separation of labeled product from the rest of nucleic acids, PCR amplification, cloning and sequencing."

The Alaskan tundra was found to be an important trigger in recent global climatic changes: warming caused degradation of permafrost and stimulated microbial decomposition, converting the tundra from a 'sink' to a net source of CO2-to-atmosphere. The understanding, prediction and mitigation of the observed climate and atmospheric changes critically depend on knowledge of permafrost microbiology. Broader impacts of the research include more reliable climate predictions, insights into life on other planets under ultracold temperatures, and development of highly efficient biocatalysts functioning at below freezing temperatures.
For more information about Dr. Nicolai Panikov's research, please visit: http://www.chem.stevens.edu/people/Nicolai_Panikov/Nicolai_Panikov.shtml

Established in 1870, Stevens offers baccalaureate, masters and doctoral degrees in engineering, science, computer science, management and technology management, as well as a baccalaureate in the humanities and liberal arts, and in business and technology. The university has enrollments of approximately 1,780 undergraduates and 2,700 graduate students, and a current enrollment of 2,250 online-learning students worldwide. Additional information may be obtained from its web page at www.Stevens.edu.

For the latest news about Stevens, please visit www.StevensNewsService.com.

Stevens Institute of Technology

Related Permafrost Articles from Brightsurf:

Coastal permafrost more susceptible to climate change than previously thought
Research led by Micaela Pedrazas, who earned her masters at The University of Texas at Austin Jackson School of Geosciences working with Professor Bayani Cardenas, has found permafrost to be mostly absent throughout the shallow seafloor along a coastal field site in northeastern Alaska.

Arctic Ocean sediments reveal permafrost thawing during past climate warming
Sea floor sediments of the Arctic Ocean can reveal how permafrost responds to climate warming.

Thawing permafrost releases organic compounds into the air
When permafrost thaws due to global warming, not only the greenhouse gases known to all, but also organic compounds are released from the soil.

Siberia's permafrost erosion has been worsening for years
The Arctic is warming faster than any other region on the planet.

Alaska is getting wetter. That's bad news for permafrost and the climate.
Alaska is getting wetter. A new study spells out what that means for the permafrost that underlies about 85% of the state, and the consequences for Earth's global climate.

Plant roots increase carbon emission from permafrost soils
A key uncertainty in climate projections is the amount of carbon emitted by thawing permafrost in the Arctic.

Stocks of vulnerable carbon twice as high where permafrost subsidence is factored in
Twice as much carbon in permafrost is vulnerable to microbial respiration when researchers from Northern Arizona University accounted for subsidence, the gradual sinking of terrain caused by loss of ice and soil mass.

Carbon emission from permafrost soils underestimated by 14%
Picture 500 million cars stacked in rows. That's how much carbon -- about 1,000 petagrams, or one billion metric tons - -is locked away in Arctic permafrost.

Nitrogen in permafrost soils may exert great feedbacks on climate change
A new Sino-German scientific collaboration investigating nitrogen in the soils of China's melting permafrost aims to get to the bottom of why emissions of nitrous oxide -- an often overlooked greenhouse gas -- are greater than they are supposed to be.

Patterns in permafrost soils could help climate change models
A team of scientists spent the past four summers measuring permafrost soils across a 5,000 square-mile swath of Alaska's North Slope.

Read More: Permafrost News and Permafrost Current Events
Brightsurf.com is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com.