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The Bacteria That Could Help the World Curb CO₂ Emissions 

Researchers at the Two Frontiers Project dove into Sicily’s acidic volcanic waters in search of extremophile microbes to learn how they survive. The never-before-seen bacteria they found may unlock a crucial solution to help curb greenhouse gas emissions.

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Microbes are truly the ultimate survivors. They’ve perfected unique ways to live in nearly every extreme environment on Earth—from Yellowstone’s hot pools to the volcanic vents of the deep sea. As humans face the increasingly existential challenges brought on by climate change, many researchers are looking to microbes to unlock new paths forward for the entire planet. If microbes have managed to adapt to some of the most inhospitable habitats, could we leverage their capabilities to solve some of our planet’s most pressing issues? 

With this question in mind, microbiologist Dr. Braden Tierney, who works with our R+D team, along with his global team of microbiologists at the Two Frontiers Project, set out on their first expedition to Sicily in search of carbon-eating microbes living in extreme environments. They hypothesized that these extremophiles could help solve our planet’s urgent CO₂ problem.

What they found supported this hypothesis: While in Sicily, they identified never-before-seen green photosynthetic bacteria thriving in the underwater volcanic vents off the coast. These bacteria are so efficient at consuming CO₂, they appear to outperform other best-in-class carbon-capturing microbes. 

So, why does this matter? 

For decades, the world has struggled to curb greenhouse gas emissions. Rising atmospheric CO₂ levels are a major concern for life on Earth, fueling unprecedented ocean acidification—which is quickly becoming one of climate change’s “silent killers.”1 By the end of this century, the ocean is expected to be 150% more acidic than it is now (as a result of increased CO₂ absorption), making it one of the greatest threats to global marine life and beyond.2 In fact, the United Nations’ IPCC emphasized the necessity of CO₂ removal in order to make a meaningful impact on climate change.3 But we need innovative strategies to make this possible. 

That’s where microbes come in. Utilizing bacteria like the strain found in Sicily could help power next-generation technology for carbon sequestration (the process of removing carbon from the atmosphere and storing it), fostering a more sustainable future.

Dr. Braden Tierney and the Two Frontiers Team dove into the acidic volcanic waters to sample water, sediment, and other sources of microbial life surrounding volcanic CO2 seeps off the coast of Sicily. (Photo taken by photographer and @earth creator John Kowitz.)

Harnessing the Power of Microbes for Next-Gen Carbon Capture

The green photosynthetic bacteria that Dr. Tierney and his team discovered are part of what’s referred to as microbial “dark matter,” the vast array of microbial species that remain largely unknown and uncharacterized. These organisms contain a trove of previously unimagined biologic mechanisms just waiting to be understood.

“Microbial ‘dark matter’ holds immense potential for understanding and improving the health of our planet,” Dr. Tierney explained. “The discovery of an extremophilic microbe in Yellowstone’s hot springs half a century ago enabled the development of modern PCR testing; with the Two Frontiers Project, we’re taking the same philosophy of microbial exploration and scaling it with next-generation sequencing technologies.”

While in Sicily, Dr. Tierney and his team dove into the acidic volcanic waters to sample water, sediment, and other sources of microbial life surrounding volcanic CO2 seeps near Vulcano, a small island off Sicily’s coast. They then cultured specific carbon-capturing organisms from these samples in a lab environment that favors the growth of microbes with the most voracious appetite for CO2. Through this work, the researchers isolated the never-before-seen volcanic green photosynthetic bacteria (shown below).  

While in Sicily, the team identified never-before-seen green photosynthetic bacteria thriving in the underwater volcanic vents off the coast of Sicily. These bacteria are so efficient at consuming CO₂ they appear to outperform other best-in-class carbon-capturing microbes.

These bacteria grow naturally in the volcanic plumes, where they efficiently use the plentiful CO2. “They also seem to have adapted to the bubbling, churning environment of the volcanic plumes by becoming denser and sinking more readily—an unusual trait that could prove useful for potentially capturing carbon and sinking it into the deep ocean for sequestration,” said Max Schubert, a Harvard researcher who worked on the project. Early data also suggest this strain can even convert captured carbon into valuable compounds like biodegradable PHA bioplastic.

One Small Step for Microbes

At Seed Health, we believe that unlocking the secrets of this hidden microbial world will allow us to take transformative strides in addressing some of the biggest challenges facing our world today, from climate change and environmental degradation to food insecurity and public health crises. With the microbiome acting as a critical mediator of interactions between complex ecosystems and the environment, the potential impact of this “dark matter” cannot be overstated.

In addition to Sicily, the Two Frontiers Project team has also gone to Colorado’s Rocky Mountains in search of microbial “dark matter,” and more expeditions are coming soon. Funded by Seed Health’s environmental division, SeedLabs, this research could help power the future of carbon sequestration.

What’s particularly exciting about this work is that the discoveries don’t end when the researchers are back from their expeditions. As part of this project, Dr. Tierney and team have created a unique open-source “living database” of extreme microbiomes. The idea is that, once they go out and collect the samples, they come back and sequence them in the lab, and then turn these “living” samples into massive amounts of data. This data enables the researchers to leverage machine learning and advanced sequencing methods as they continue to investigate the biology from their field expeditions long after returning to the lab. 

As our Scientific Board Member George Church, Ph.D., explained: “Just as we’ve witnessed the tremendous impact of the microbiome on human health, this groundbreaking environmental research will be instrumental in unlocking the microbiome’s potential to tackle some of the most pressing challenges facing our planet, from carbon remediation to resource management to ecological preservation. As we delve deeper into the untapped world of microbial life, we uncover transformative solutions that can significantly improve planetary health and pave the way for a more sustainable future.” 

It’s clear that we have a lot to learn from the tiny, resilient microbes that call extreme environments home. That’s why we continue to investigate our microbial partners, and why we will traverse the planet (and beyond) to learn more about them. By working to understand their biology and harness their unique abilities, we can take one step closer to a more sustainable future. 

Citations

  1. Preparing for ocean acidification, a silent killer of climate change • Earth.com. (2023, March 29). Earth.com. https://www.earth.com/news/preparing-for-ocean-acidification-a-silent-killer-of-climate-change/
  2. What is Ocean Acidification? (n.d.). https://pmel.noaa.gov/co2/story/What+is+Ocean+Acidification%3F
  3. IPCC. (2023). Climate Change 2023:Synthesis Report. A Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Contribution of Working Groups I, II and III to the Sixth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (H. Lee & J. Romero, Eds.). IPCC, Geneva, Switzerland, (in press)