Lava caves in Hawaii are teeming with ‘dark matter’ bacteria

Thurston Lava Tube in Hawaii Volcano National Park, Big Island

Thurston Lava Tube in Hawaii Volcano National Park, Big Island
picture: stock struggle (stock struggle)

The volcanic environments of Hawaii contain New research this week has found a rich collection of mysterious microbes. Scientists say the islands’ lava caves and other structures created by volcanic activity have unique, diverse and still uncharacteristic communities of bacteria living within them. The findings suggest that there is still much to learn about life in some of the most extreme conditions on Earth.

Researchers at several universities and NASA collaborated on the study, which was published Thursday in Frontiers in Microbiology. They studied samples collected from 70 sites along the Big Island of Hawaii, the largest island in the Hawaiian archipelago. These sites included caves, tubes, and fumarolesThese are openings or openings where water and volcanic gases can seep out. They analyzed and sequenced the RNA present in the samples, allowing the creation of a rough map of the bacterial communities that live there.

Stalactite formation in the Hawaiian cave system of this study with copper minerals and white bacterial colonies.

Stalactite formation in the Hawaiian cave system of this study with copper minerals and white bacterial colonies.
picture: Kenneth Engham

Some of these areas, especially those with constant geothermal activity, are the most extreme places in the world, because they are extremely hot and filled with chemicals that are toxic to most living things. So the research team expected to find relatively little diversity of life within the sites that were experiencing these harsh conditions. The researchers found that ancient caves and tubes that formed more than 500 years ago have greater bacterial diversity. But to their surprise, even active geothermal vents were filled with a variety of bacteria. Compared to other sites, the bacterial communities in these harsher habitats seemed more complex in how they interact with each other.

“This leads us to the question, Do extreme environments help create more interactive microbial communities, where microorganisms are more dependent on each other?” Study author Rebecca Prescott, a researcher at NASA Johnson Space Center and the University of Hawaii, said in a statement. “And if so, what about the harsh environments that help create this?

Thick microbial mats hang under a rocky ledge in vapor vents that extend along the eastern rift zone.

Thick microbial mats hang under a rocky ledge in vapor vents that extend along the eastern rift zone.
picture: Jimmy Saw

The bacteria at these sites rarely overlap, meaning that these environments appear to host their own unique microbial worlds, with at least thousands of unknown species remaining to be identified. One group of bacteria in particular, known as Chloroflexi, may be particularly impressive, although they are commonly found in various volcanic regions and appear to interact with many other organisms. They could be an example of a “central species” – microbes vital to the structure and function of their communities.

“This study points to the possibility that ancient strains of bacteria, such as the phylum Chloroflexi, may have ‘important ecological functions or roles,’” Prescott said. “Chloroflexi is a very diverse group of bacteria, with lots of different roles in lots of environments. different, but they are not well studied and so we don’t know what they do in these societies. Some scientists call these groups “microbial dark matter” – microorganisms that are unseen or unstudied in nature. “

These types of genetic sampling studies can provide a broad view of the bacterial world present in a particular location, but not more detailed information about individual species or the roles they play in their microbiomes. So scientists say more research is needed to decipher these volcanic populations. Over time, what we learn may be very relevant to our understanding of how life began on Earth or even on Mars, because these environments may be the closest extant counterpart to what planets looked like long ago.

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