Jamie Morton

Jamie Morton is science reporter at the NZ Herald.

Microscopic beings could prove colossal to science

Dr Stott is leading The 1000 Springs Project. Photo / Alan Gibson
Dr Stott is leading The 1000 Springs Project. Photo / Alan Gibson

Scientists are searching in an unlikely place for the next big breakthrough - New Zealand's postcard hot springs.

In a two-year project, researchers are half-way through gathering samples from 1000 different hot springs in the central North Island.

Under their microscopes are hardy bacterium called extremophiles, capable of withstanding some of the most inhospitable environments on the planet.

Little is known about them - and the secrets these microscopic beings hold could prove colossal to science.

Watch: Geothermal hot springs full of life

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"There's a multitude of things you could find from these micro-organisms," said Dr Matthew Stott of GNS Science, who is leading the joint 1000 Springs Project.

"You can use micro-organisms to break down cellulose in order to make ethanol for biofuels, or in medicine, you could find micro-organisms that generate anti-microbial agents, which could be used as thermo-stable anti-biotics."

One Nobel Prize-winning discovery was the application of an enzyme from Thermus aquaticus, a species of bacteria found in Yellowstone National Park that scientists used to effectively photocopy DNA and is now one of the most important tools in molecular biology.

"There's no reason why this kind of thing can't come out of a New Zealand micro-organism as well."

The study area of the project, a partnership between GNS and the University of Waikato, spans from White Island to Taupo, taking in most of the North Island's geothermal wonders.

This week, Dr Stott, was out with his team at Waimungu Volcanic Valley, home to the spectacular Emerald Pools and Inferno Crater lake.

During sampling, a specially-designed pole is used to lower high-temperature flasks into the pools.

The water sample is then filtered to capture the tens of thousands of micro-organisms within it, before their DNA is extracted, sequenced using cutting-edge technology, and compared against an international database.

"We can identify about 70,000 micro-organisms per sample - that's something we've never been able to do before, and it allows us to make all kinds of hypotheses and ecological inferences."

What was more exciting, he said, was virtually nothing was known about the hundreds of thousands of types of these organisms, and the vast amount of them could be unique to New Zealand.

"Within the last three to four years, the technology and the ability to go out and do these samples has come together as one."

The benefits of their work, fed into a regularly updated website, also stretched beyond the laboratory, he said.

"It's applicable to tourism operations, to iwi, to regional councils for conservation and planning - there are so many aspects this data can be used for."

In future phases of the project, he would like to explore geothermal fields north of Auckland, in Canterbury and in the Kermadec Arc.

• Check on the latest results at www.1000springs.gns.cri.nz.

Creatures that love a hot bath

For us humans, a bath any hotter than 40C is toe-burning territory.

Yet some of the bacteria that live in our geothermal hot springs are quite happy in water near boiling point.

The more extreme of these "extremophiles" were comfortable in pools as hot as 90C, felt colder at 80C or 70C, and couldn't deal with temperatures any less than 60C.

The hardy microbes can also withstand water with the pH level of ammonia, and salinity as intense as sea water.

Clustered together, their pigments colour hot springs the brilliant greens, oranges, reds and yellows which make for spectacular pictures, but to view them singularly, a microscope is needed.

A typical microbe measures one thousandth of a millimetre - small enough that 200 lined end-to-end would only cover the width of a strand of human hair.

- NZ Herald

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