Could a volcanic microbe steward the future of carbon capture on Earth and in space?
Humanity’s two greatest frontiers—oceans and space—have much in common; one of their similarities being carbon dioxide (CO₂).
The majority of the Earth's atmospheric CO₂ is absorbed into the ocean.¹ As humans increase fossil fuel usage, deforestation, and other industrial processes, there’s even greater production of CO₂—and it’s changing the ocean’s chemistry at an unprecedented rate. As this excess CO₂ dissolves into our oceans, it reduces the pH, leading to ocean acidification and disrupting ecologically and economically critical marine processes. By the end of this century, the ocean is expected to be 150% more acidic² than it is now, making it one of the greatest threats to global marine life, quickly becoming considered one of climate change’s “silent killers.”³
However, excessive CO2 is a challenge faced by humanity everywhere we go—including space. The major biochemical waste product of humans in enclosed biosphere or life support systems in space is CO₂; the CO₂ exhaled by astronauts during space flight (i.e., on the International Space Station) can result in health problems, from headaches to hypercapnia. To survive in increasingly hostile and extreme environments we need ways to capture this carbon and convert it into resources needed to survive.
Enter the Two Frontiers Project (2FP). Founded by Dr. Braden Tierney alongside a global team of microbiologists, 2FP is an expedition-based research initiative devoted to “scientifically exploring” humanity’s greatest frontiers: the oceans and space. This team searches for solutions—usually in the form of microbes adapted to extreme conditions—to major societal challenges, like climate change, coral bleaching, or interplanetary survival. Specifically, their flagship initiative aims to discover carbon eating microbes living in extreme environments across the planet.
The 2FP takes advantage of a key aspect of microbial physiology: their ability to survive just about anywhere, living off whatever resources are available. Microbes have been evolving on the planet for 3.6 billion years, further optimizing their physiology with every round of cell division. The founding members of the 2FP hypothesized that the places on Earth with the highest CO2, therefore, would house organisms best at eating it.
To date, the 2FP has completed two research expeditions labeled CARBON1 and CARBON2.
CARBON1 took place at the Aeolian Islands off the coast of Sicily to sample microbial life in the volcanic, highly acidic hydrothermal vents near the small volcano Vulcano. The research team was able to isolate cyanobacteria that are more efficient at carbon capture than their best-in-class industry competitors.
CARBON2 traversed the state of Colorado—a state famous for its hot and carbonated springs —to collect, sequence, and culture microbial samples from deep in the Rocky Mountains. With Oxford Nanopore's MinION, the team carried out a novel approach for sequencing DNA in the field and designing enrichment media onsite for targeted isolation of carbon-capture-efficient microbes.
Status of Research
Learn more about the research at Two Frontiers Project.
Jeremy Wain Hirschberg
¹ Global Ocean Absorbing More Carbon. (2019, March 15). National Centers for Environmental Information (NCEI). https://www.ncei.noaa.gov/news/global-ocean-absorbing-more-carbon
² What is Ocean Acidification? (n.d.). Pacific Marine Environmental Lab (PMEL) at NOAA. https://pmel.noaa.gov/co2/story/What+is+Ocean+Acidification%3F
³ Preparing for ocean acidification, a silent killer of climate change. (2023, March 29). Earth.com. https://www.earth.com/news/preparing-for-ocean-acidification-a-silent-killer-of-climate-change/