New microbial life forms were discovered in Hawaii’s lava caves
By analyzing samples collected in the lava tubes and geothermal sites of Hawaii, never-before-seen microbial life forms have been discovered.
In the caves of lava rock and in fumaroles of the Hawaiian Islands (United States) multiple discoveries have been made about forms of microbial life, many of which do not belong to genera and species already known to scholars. A part of these tiny organisms lives in geothermal tunnels volcanic vents e lava tubes where they spread poisoned gas, which would annihilate the vast majority of living beings in a few moments. But here the colonies of bacteria live undisturbed, thriving in forms never seen before.
Discovering the numerous new species of “extreme” bacteria was an American research team led by scientists from the Arnold School of Public Health at the University of South Carolina and the School of Life Sciences at the University of Hawaii at Mānoa, who collaborated closely with colleagues from the Department of Microbiology and Cellular Science at the University of Florida, the University of New Mexico, NASA and other research centers.
Scientists, led by Professor Rebecca D. Prescott, a professor of microbiology at the Hawaiian university, discovered the microbes after taking samples from various volcanic sites between 2006 and 2009 and between 2017 and 2019.
The researchers well knew that oligotrophic volcanic environments in Hawaii are teeming with bacterial life, but they weren’t expecting such extraordinary diversity after analyzing the samples. Researchers use unique techniques to determine which species of bacteria live in a particular environment RNA-based sequencing (specifically on 16S rRNA amplicons); when they applied them to the 70 samples collected, they found unexpected diversity, with a considerable divergence between individual sites.
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The researchers also found that older lava tubes (aged between 500 and 800 years) had greater phylogenetic diversity than geothermically active or younger sites (less than 400 years old), have Professor Prescott and colleagues wrote in the abstract of the study.
The more active sites, on the other hand, had “a greater number of interactions and complexity than the lava tubes.” The most common bacteria in young caves belonged to the Proteobacteria and Actinobacteria groups, while Chloroflexi and Acidobacteria were widespread in almost all sites, both ancient and recent.
“In the natural world, microbes don’t grow in isolation. Instead, they grow, live, and interact with many other microorganisms in a sea of chemical signals from those other microbes. This can then alter their gene expression, affecting their work in the community, ”the study authors commented.
Research on bacteria that live in the most extreme environments can help researchers also understand potential alien life forms that could live on other celestial bodies in the Solar System, such as on Mars or the moons of Jupiter and Saturn. The details of the research “Islands Within Islands: Bacterial Phylogenetic Structure and Consortia in Hawaiian Lava Caves and Fumaroles” have been published in a specialized scientific journal.