Land & Environment

USU, EMSL to Explore How Bacteria Thrive in the Great Salt Lake

Utah State University is taking the lead in a partnership with the Environmental Molecular Sciences Laboratory (EMSL). EMSL is a U.S. Department of Energy national scientific user facility located at and managed by Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.

The three-year project, conducted by USU’s Center for Integrated BioSystems, is aimed at examining how the microbial community survives in the hostile environment of the Great Salt Lake.

Extreme conditions at the Great Salt Lake put special pressures on bacteria that live there. The Earth’s biogeochemical cycles, or nutrient cycles, are driven by microorganisms. The high salt content of the lake makes oxygen limited, meaning that once photosynthesis stops at night, the oxygen is quickly used up and bacteria have to change how they get their energy.

“Very few universities have the opportunity for conducting research at this level,” said Jacob Parnell, biologist at USU’s Center for Integrated BioSystems. “All life is driven by redox which is how bacteria breathe and obtain energy. Understanding how groups of organisms respond to these changing conditions is a fundamental issue that has implications for bioremediation, bio-energy, human health and ecosystem function.”

Researchers at EMSL will build a database of the proteins found in the lake’s bacteria and archaea, another microbe found in extreme environments. The information will be used by USU to monitor the changes in proteins as the microbial community responds to changes in oxygen.
“This collaborative research effort has the potential to help in the discovery of new proteins that carry out important metabolic processes evolved to function in salt-saturated environments,” said Stephen Callister, an EMSL scientist. “Of critical importance are understanding whether and how shifts in these processes, as a result of periodic environmental fluctuations in the GSL, affect the redox of pollutants.”

The research builds on current studies by USU, in collaboration with the DOE’s Joint Genome Institute, to document what lives in the lake through genetic sequencing. The project will look at what these microbes are doing, and how they survive in extreme environments.

Other key researchers on the project include Giovanni Rompato from USU, along with microbiologist Bart Weimer at the University of California, Davis.
EMSL, the Environmental Molecular Sciences Laboratory, is a national scientific user facility sponsored by the Department of Energy’s Office of Science, Biological and Environmental Research program that is located at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. EMSL offers an open, collaborative environment for scientific discovery to researchers around the world. EMSL’s technical experts and suite of custom and advanced instruments are unmatched. Its integrated computational and experimental capabilities enable researchers to realize fundamental scientific insights and create new technologies.

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Contact: Jacob Parnell, (435) 757-524,
Writer: Jeannine Huenemann, (435)-797-8274,
Utah's Great Salt Lake

USU is taking the lead in a partnership with the Environmental Molecular Sciences Laboratory. The three-year project, conducted by USU's Center for Integrated BioSystems, will examine how the microbial community survives in the Great Salt Lake.


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