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Swiss researchers identify new bacteria in permafrost

Published on 20/06/2020

Melting permafrost in the Swiss Alps is revealing interesting species of bacteria that scientists hope can result in new medicines and environmentally friendly solutions.

“These samples come from the Schafberg mountain above Pontresina [in eastern Switzerland]. This is our main area at 3,000 meters. The permafrost there is 13,000 years old,” explains Beat Frey, a scientist at the Swiss Federal Institute for Forest, Snow and Landscape Research (WSL).

In Switzerland, permafrost exists above 2,500 metres of altitude, and covers some 5% of the country’s surface area. 

Four large WSL freezers at Birmensdorf in canton Zurich store samples of bacteria at -80 degrees Celsius that Frey and his team have carefully dug up in the Upper Engadine region and studied in the lab.

“The species diversity in the permafrost soil is much higher than on the surface. We never expected this,” Frey recently told Swiss public radio, SRF. “If we find 1,000 species, around 300 of them are species that only exist in permafrost.”

Frey and his team are especially interested in hypothermic species. His team has already described 10 new species together with other research groups, and has just discovered another new type of yeast – a fungus that is perfectly at home at -5C. Frey believes that over 100 new species may be present in the freezers.

In the lab the scientists are also studying bacteria that secrete antibiotic substances, which keep other bacteria in check; it is thought that these substances could become new antibiotics.

“Permafrost could become a gold mine for humans,” says Frey.

This field of research is already resulting in interesting new products. For example, enzymes from the microorganisms have been identified that can break down fats at lower temperatures. These can be used in detergents to wash clothes at lower temperatures and help save energy.

Some of the bacteria that Frey has found is also being investigated to see if it can break down plastic. One idea is to employ bacteria in bioreactors on a large scale to eliminate plastic rubbish.