The Painted Deserts
by Alex Richardson
Throughout the deserts of southern Utah, rock formations exhibit beautiful colors. Within systems such as beaches and deserts, there are highly diverse ecological communities of microorganisms, also known as microbiomes. The Beaches and Deserts: The Microbial Cycling of Iron and Other Nutrients Creative Inquiry project led by Dr. Harry Kurtz in the Department of Biological Sciences is studying the impact that microbes have on these environments. The team is focusing on beaches and deserts because they are distinct, dynamic systems that are under pressure from climate change. Both ecosystems experience fluctuations in erosion, temperature and precipitation.
This team is investigating the role of microbes in metal and nitrogen cycling. Microbes require metal ions for growth and development, and research shows that metal ions are concentrated in the microbial biomass near the surface of the rock. These microbes likely form a biofilter, and the team is currently working to isolate key organisms involved in the process. To accomplish this, the team is developing growth media optimized for a target organism. Different characteristics of the organisms are exploited to develop base media which will allow for multiple generations of the target microbes to grow and develop to get a pure culture consisting only of the desired microorganism. The process of getting a pure culture often takes years, and many microbes cannot be completely purified. “It is very rewarding to be able to isolate individual microbes out of the environment and into a pure culture,” Ronald Smithwick, a senior microbiology major, said.
By studying and identifying the organisms present in these desert systems the team hopes to evaluate the roles of different organisms in the environment and gain a greater understanding of the impact microbes have on the fundamental ecology of deserts. Through understanding the interplay between microbes and ecology, the impacts of climate change in desert environments will be better appreciated.
Auto-Fluorescence Observed on Rocks
Photos taken by Kurtz.
Barbara J. Speziale