Looking For Microbes In Wyoming's Extreme Ecosystems

Sep 21, 2017

The microbe Verrucomicrobium spinosum
Credit Copyright by Dennis Kunzel and James T. Staley

Cutting edge science is discovering that billions of species of microscopic bacteria live everywhere... on our bodies and in nature.

Now, the National Science Foundation has awarded the University of Wyoming $20 million to learn more about those microbes. Scientists plan to sample and catalog microscopic life in the extreme ecosystems of Wyoming: from glaciers to oil pads to the bison rangelands of the Wind River Reservation.

UW Molecular Biology Professor Naomi Ward said the study will add greatly to human understanding of the role of microbes in nature.

“They make up most of what we call the tree of life and they also carry out really important functions in our environment,” Ward said. “So it’s important to know who they are, where they are, and what they’re doing and how that connects to bigger parts of an ecosystem.”

UW Botany Professor Alex Buerkle said the money will go toward supporting several new academic positions and toward purchasing specialized equipment.

“We’ll have robotics for liquid handling because we’re going to be having so many samples and we want to ensure that they’re all handled in the same way,” he said. “We’ll transfer our protocols to utilize robots to move very small volumes of liquid around.” 

Buerkle said a microbe study of this scope has never been attempted elsewhere.

“The rationale of why Wyoming, why we’re doing it here is because we have both incredibly pristine and public lands that we want to understand what is the life in our public lands and in pristine places. Because that then serves as a reference point for all those places that aren’t pristine and we can make a contrast between them,” said Buerkle.

For instance, scientists plan to collect samples in not-so-pristine places like oil pads in need of restoration.

The study will be conducted over the next five years.