Toxic metabolizing microbes found in burning coal seams of Kuzbass
Geothermal ecosystems, such as volcanoes and terrestrial and deep hot springs, are characterized by severe conditions. Temperatures are high and the environment can be extremely acidic or very alkaline. In addition, they contain chemically active compounds that can be fatal to living organisms, as they are able to destroy the membrane of an ordinary cell.
“Exclusively very suitable microorganisms can exist here. They not only have unique protective systems, but are also able to derive energy from chemical transformations of substances available to them. Humans actively use the peculiarities of their metabolism, for example certain enzymes help biologists to amplify DNA molecules in a test tube, ”says Vitaly Kadnikov, Ph.D., senior researcher at the Federal Research Center“ Fundamentals of biotechnology ”of the Russian Academy of Sciences and principal investigator of the Russian Science Foundation grant.
New and hitherto poorly understood analogues of these natural ecosystems (called simply thermal) are places of hydrocarbon production, i.e. oil wells and coal mines. The latter is the subject of research by a group of scientists from the Federal Research Center “Fundamentals of Biotechnology” of RAS (Moscow) and Tomsk State University (Tomsk). The authors studied the quarries near the town of Kiselevsk, in the Kemerovo region, and took samples of soil layers from places where there were signs of a soil heated by fire, smoke and where steam comes out on the surface. They characterized the chemical and mineralogical makeup of the samples to understand what substances could be used for energy by bacteria that colonize anthrax. Then, the biologists determined the composition of the microbial communities of each layer by analyzing the DNA of this layer, namely the gene sequence of one of the ribosome subunits usually used for these purposes.
It turned out that more than a dozen groups of microorganisms live in the quarry of Kuzbass, mainly bacteria. Archaea which are considered common inhabitants of extreme ecosystems were found not to exceed 3%; they are all chemolithoautotrophs which convert ammonia into nitrite. The latter compound has become “food” for another small group of organisms that metabolize it to nitrate, which people use, for example, as a fertilizer.
Representatives of chlorobacteria predominated among bacteria, often found in ecosystems with a high carbon dioxide content; they are also capable of converting toxic carbon monoxide into CO2. This could apply to new air purification technologies wherever an oven is used. Certain bacteria found in charcoal seams can oxidize hydrogen with the formation of water.
Microbes have also been found to use methane as a growth substrate. Many identified organisms can fix carbon dioxide and develop autotrophically, but there are some that feed on the dead remains of their fellows. Kuzbass’s career has proven to be a well-rounded microbial community, surpassing similar objects studied earlier in China, the United States and the Altai in terms of diversity.
“Our research is another step towards understanding how these relatively young ecosystems came to be, how they relate and how they can be used. They have a lot in common with those that form around hot springs. Who knows, maybe they include very specific organisms that help develop new ways to obtain valuable biotechnology products using the hydrogen and carbon monoxide generated during the gasification of coal, ”says Vitaly Kadnikov .
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