Human health could suffer if rare Antarctic bacteria are threatened with extinction

It has been clear for a decade that algae and bacteria are taking advantage of melting snow and colonizing new regions of Antarctica in a process known as ‘greening’. But what has been overlooked until now is that tiny microorganisms are disappearing elsewhere as the continent warms – some are even threatened with extinction.

Because scientists have been unable to effectively grow these rare gas-eating chemosynthetic bacteria, little is known about the potential role they could play in new medical or technological developments, meaning human health and well-being could be the big loser. are when they are swept away.

“We don’t really know what they could do in the field of biotechnology. They could have new antibiotics,” Professor Belinda Ferrari from the University of NSW told Yahoo News Australia. “Some of our soil samples contained at least 115 species Eremiobacterota, so there can be a lot of diversity in what they can do.”

Left: greening Antarctica.  Right - A chemist in Australia.Left: greening Antarctica.  Right - A chemist in Australia.

Bacteria disappearing as the Greens disappear in Antarctica could be eradicated before they are even explored for important applications such as antibiotics. Source: Getty (file)

Even more worrying, the loss of these tiny bacteria could change the structure and appearance of the Antarctic communities where they thrive. In the event of their demise, they would likely be replaced by bacterial weeds that prefer milder, moister conditions associated with climate change.

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Ferrari and her team began their research by examining soil samples taken nearly two decades ago from East Antarctica, where two types of chemosynthetic bacteria were abundant. They used models to predict how changes in the ecosystem might affect these strange microbes, which survive by eating gases in the air.

When the moisture in the environment changed, Professor Belinda Ferrari’s team observed a “significant increase” in the amount of algae and bacteria that cause greening through photosynthesis, and a “significant decrease” in chemosynthetic bacteria.

“These organisms oxidize gas in the atmosphere to get enough energy to grow. In these environments we believe they have been selected because it is frozen and dark most of the year – the gas provides a reliable source of energy,” said Ferrari.

Even more worrying, a shift in the microbe population could have a knock-on effect on the ecosystem in which they grow, likely removing from the atmosphere the gases they consume: hydrogen, carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide. It could even increase global warming where they once thrived.

More monitoring of Antarctic bacterial sites is urgently needed

To see if their modeling was correct, the scientists compared their 2005 samples to other samples from 2019. They found a “large decrease” in chemosynthetic bacteria, which was in line with their prediction. The levels dropped from about 10 percent to 5 percent.

But how bad it has gotten since the last samples were taken is unknown.

“We need to set up long-term monitoring of these areas to see how bad the problem is. Because we don’t really know what has happened in the last five years,” said Ferrari.

The findings from the University of NSW have been published in the journal Conservation biology.

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