Microbes of the Earth!

Wrinkled landscape along mountain
Hues of the Earth by Dru! (2014) CC BY-NC 2.0 via Flickr. https://c2.staticflickr.com/6/5199/13971843885_f25704affd_k.jpg

As a humans, we tend to focus on microbes that live in and on human bodies. I wanted to write about some of the amazing things we are discovering about the microbes that live on the skin of the Planet Earth.

Rhodococcus rhodochrous
Forest Service scientists in Missouri have used a common soil bacterium, Rhodococcus rhodochrous, to develop a treatment for White-Nose Syndome in bats.

Lori Cuthbert reports for Discovery News, “the researchers grew the bacterium on cobalt, which produced so-called volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that stop the fungus [that causes White Nose Syndrome], Pseudogymnoascus destructans, from growing. “The amazing part about this is that these compounds diffuse through the air and act at very low concentrations, so the bats are treated by exposing them to air containing the VOCs (the compounds do not need to be ‘directly’ applied to the bats),” according to a USFS press release.”

White Nose Syndrome has been a threat to hibernating bat populations in North America since 2006, when it was discovered in the Northeastern U.S.. About 6 million bats have died from WNS.

Mycobacterium vaccae
I’ve always wondered why playing in the dirt made me feel so happy and relaxed. Researchers think that ingestion of soil microbe Mycobacterium vaccae may boost gardeners levels serotonin and norepinephrine, neurotransmitters responsible for improving mood. When I first saw this posted on Facebook, I thought, “This has to be one of those weird hippie hoaxes that float around the internet.” But then I found the paper detailing the mouse studies showing that mice who ingest live M. vaccae have less anxiety and are more effective at solving a maze. I will continue to dose myself with soil at my summer job with a community garden.

Chemoautotrophic Brine-dwelling bacteria
For a detour into some truly Lovecraftian microbial performance art, EarthSky.org brings us the Origins of Antarctica’s Blood Falls. The red color of the water is due to the microbial inhabitants of the very salty water that wells up from under the glacier, who metabolize iron and sulfur compounds.

Scientists think that Blood Falls may just be a small outlet of a much larger sub-glacial super-salty ecosystem. Studying extremophile microbial communities like the one at Blood Falls could offer insights into what kind of life might exist in harsh environments on other planets.

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