Wyncote, PA (PressExposure) July 15, 2008 -- Even though they've been living millions of years on the Chilean coasts, no one had studied them well enough. Until now, where biologists at the University of Concepcion (Chile), allied with Craig Venter, are researching their potential, ranging from the production of ammonia and hydrogen to creating explosives and drugs.
The Chilean seafloor continues to exhibit its great potential. Marine Biologist PhD. Victor Ariel Gallardo study the genome of macrobacteria (Beggiatoa spp.) and megabacteria (Thioploca spp.) that live from the northern coasts of Chile down to Arauco in southern Chile, between 20 and 200 meters (60 to 600ft.) deep in the clay sediments, with lots of organic matter but little or no oxygen.
Microorganisms discovered measure between 10 and 90 micrometers in diameter in the case of megabacteria (a bacterium normally does not reach 10 micrometers) and up to 7 centimeters long! The macrobacteria reach a few micrometers in diameter and are up to 3 centimeters long! These organisms, analyzed at a US laboratory, could be used in the mining, pharmaceutical or medical industries.
The megabacteria were discovered in 1962 during the Expedition Mar Chile II, they are visible to the naked eye and are abundant, in the oxygen depleted waters of the continental shelf. The macrobacteria in the same geographical location, were seen in 2004. "All live in environments previously considered to be devoid of life. Apart from the classical microbial life (or tiny organisms) that is everywhere, these large bacteria had gone unnoticed," says Victor Gallardo. The macrobacteria "probably are descendants of the first bacteria that settled in sediments on the planet, some three or four billion years ago," says the biologist, "and were very well known by micropaleontologists since the middle of the last century that found them as fossils in ancient rocks. Megabacteria would have appeared between 850 and 1,200 million years ago, when there already was more oxygen in the seas", explains Victor Gallardo.
The bacteria reach large sizes since they use the water's nitrate content instead of oxygen to survive and obtain their energy from hydrogen sulphide, a toxic gas that is found in marine sediments, with which they feed. According to the biologist, these micro-organisms invented some "nitrate diving bottles." "Each cell has a bag in its interior, which is almost 90% of its volume, within which it accumulates nitrate, just like divers have their tanks filled with oxygen. They stick out into the water and fill their nitrate tanks and they use them to breathe, they then return back into the sediment and absorb hydrogen sulphide, their food. In their tanks nitrate is concentrated 20 thousand times, they can survive with it almost two years without having to go out for more", says Victor Gallardo.
At this point in time, the scientist is studying the genome of these bacteria to exploit their potential. Previous research on similar organisms have shown promise for future use, especially in energy production.
"If we find in Chile bacteria that can produce hydrogen, for example, they could be used as the gasoline we use now and it would be a very important contribution, when you consider hydrogen combustion with oxygen forms water, not carbon dioxide, so it doesn't contribute to global warming either", says Victor Gallardo.
As these bacteria feed on a toxic gas - hydrogen sulphide - that though found in the seabed, it is also produced by some industries such as the fisheries. "It would be interesting to make a detergent that would prevent poisoning, for example, with the gasses rotten fish produces," says Gallardo. Similar bacteria studied in international laboratories are capable of producing ammonia as waste, which is then used as plant fertilizer and even in sewage treatment plants. Others may be used in the explosives industry and in the pharmaceutical industry, for example a compound of Salinispora (one of these bacteria) was discovered that can kill cancer cells in the blood.
For the time being, the potential of the bacteria found in Chile is unknown, and are currently being tested in the United States. Gallardo has worked with Craig Venter (known worldwide for the Human Genome Project), and thanks to his own contacts, supported by the University of Concepcion and Fondecyt (Chilean National Science and Technology Fund), he has made progress in this research. "There are many laboratories currently working on them in the rest of the world and we are trying to stimulate and deepen the local studies. We believe it is important to have access to these living marine resources, which are not fish nor shellfish, which as you know, obtain more attention. I think this is going to change or may be actually changing as these new resources could contain genes, proteins and enzymes that could biotechnologically help solve several problems that beset mankind and our country specifically", emphasizes the biologist.
The relationship with Craig Venter
Victor A. Gallardo met J. Craig Venter five years ago, when the American visited Chile for a series of conferences, but began working together in 2004 when Venter invited him to participate in the Sorcerer II Expedition, an expedition that circumnavigated the oceans seeking information about the marine microscopic life. Gallardo joined the team that explored the American seas following the route Darwin took to the Galapagos Islands, but placing emphasis on micro-organisms that were not included in that prior expedition. The Chilean biologist even participated in a series of documentaries broadcast on the Discovery Channel regarding this voyage. During this expedition, Gallardo had the idea to deepen the knowledge of the giant bacteria that exist in the Chilean seas, which were then sampled and are currently analysed in the laboratories of a U.S. foundation to which Venter helped them enter through a grant. At the year's end they expect to have the first data that'll let them analyse each part of the bacterial genome. "If we seize this opportunity, we will be well footed to meet the challenge of learning more about our biodiversity. The study of these giant bacteria is a field that is starting to be rediscovered, we are creating a new discipline to study them", says Victor Gallardo.
The economic resources available to the researcher are currently miniscule, as he says, so he trusts there'll be tangible benefits from California-Chile Agreement, signed last month by President Michelle Bachelet and Arnold Schwarzenegger. "We need equipment and personnel that we do not have. The agreement will give us the opportunity to collaborate with advanced centers, making sure that there is an equitable sharing of the benefits of discoveries that are made," he says.
Chilean scientists are currently studying an agreement with the institutes led by Dr. Venter, they seek to speed the research in marine sediment bacteria and in time, cover the full range of the biological tree. "We will aim at creating a genomic exploration institute. The contacts in Europe and the U.S. exist, what we miss is more funding. The task s to start now so we can obtain results soon. All supports are welcome", says Gallardo.
PhD Victor A Gallardo G. Master of Marine Affairs, University of Rhode Island, Kingston Ph. D. Biology, University of Southern California, Los Angeles, California firstname.lastname@example.org Phone: (56) (51) 223-4730 CellPhone: (56)(9) 962-08-245
Related Information: Copas [http://copas.udec.cl/eng/copas/personnel/cv_resear..].
Scientia Marina http://www.icm.csic.es/scimar/index.php/secId/9/au...
Oceans (European Network of Excellence for Ocean Ecosystem Analysis [http://www.eur-oceans.eu/contact_members/index.php..].
Census of Marine Life [http://www.coreocean.org/dev2go.web?id=259312]
ISME International Society for Microbial Ecology http://www.isme-microbes.org/about/ambassadors