3-Jun-2008 00:00 Eastern US Time
The research is presented today by Jennifer Loveland-Curtze at the 108th American Society for Microbiology General Meeting in Boston, Massachusetts. She is senior research associate in the laboratory led by Jean Brenchley, professor of biochemistry and molecular biology at Penn State University. The research team also includes senior research associate Vanya Miteva.
The new species is one of the ultra-small bacteria that have puzzled scientists for years. These are so tiny that they pass through microbiological filters. Some species have even been found living in the highly purified water used for dialysis.
"Ultra-small cells could be unknown contaminants in media and medical solutions that are thought to have been sterilised using filters," said Loveland-Curtze.
The size of the new species helped it to survive for so long in the harsh conditions of the Greenland glacier. "Small microbial cell size is considered to be advantageous for more efficient nutrient uptake in oligotrophic conditions," write the scientists. This is because with small size comes "larger surface-to-volume ratio, protection against predators and occupation of microenvironments".
Chryseobacterium greenlandensis is related genetically to types of bacteria found in fish, marine mud and the roots of some plants. It is one of only about 10 scientifically described new species discovered in polar ice and glaciers.
To study the bacteria in the laboratory the research team filtered out the cells from the melted ice. They then incubated them in cold, solutions that had no oxygen and very few nutrients. The final steps were to study the genes, the physiology, the biochemistry and the structure of the bacteria.
The research team have demonstrated that this painstaking procedure works for elusive micro-organisms. So it can now be used to learn much more about them - "their metabolic properties and mechanisms for long-term survival under extreme conditions."
Microbes form a third or more of the Earth's biomass, said Loveland-Curtze. "Yet fewer than 8,000 microbes have been described out of the approximately 3,000,000 that are presumed to exist."
"The description of this one species is a significant step in the overall endeavour to discover, cultivate and use the special features of these organisms."