Episode 1 Take me home

Did you know that Nevada has over 400 hot springs? Did you know that things can live in hot springs that are close to boiling?

Two domains of microbes, bacteria and archaea, are both impressive hot spring inhabitants. Thermophilic archaea are probably the toughest organisms on the planet when it comes to takin' the heat. They can live in hot springs up to about 120 degrees Celcius (248 F)! Keep reading for more information on these amazing Desert Survivors!
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  • Some microbes can "eat" things like rocks, hydrogen gas, and metal.
  • In addition to oxygen, microbes can "breathe" things like carbon dioxide, metals, and salts.
  • They can live in some of the most exteme environments on Earth!
  • Archaea are the most thermophilic (heat loving) organisms known!
  • The hottest springs known are hydrothermal vents in the deep sea. They can be up to 400 degrees Celsius (750 F).
  • The oldest microbial fossils are about 3.8 billion years old!
  • Some scientists believe there to be microbial fossils on a meteor from Mars!
  • Microbes can be found almost everywhere on Earth. Some places scientists have not yet found bacteria are in magma (hot lava) and in some places in the Atacama Desert of South America!
Microbes in space?
  • There are about 200 species of bacteria in your mouth.
  • There are at least 457 hot springs in Nevada.
  • 1,000 bacteria can fit on the tip of a pin.
  • There are more bacterial cells than human cells in your body.
  • Your skin contains about 1 trillion bacterial cells.
  • Bacteria were first discovered in the 1670s, along with rotifers, by van Leeuwenhoek.
  • There are more microbes on your hand than there are people on the planet.
  • Bacteria are used to make soy sauce, yogurt, saurkraut, vinegar, soda, cheese, infant formula, gum, paper, and even laundry detergent!
  • It is thought that if you could weigh all the living things on Earth, bacteria would make-up ½ of the total weight.
Microbes

Size: We are usually SUPER tiny. 500 to 1,000 average bacteria can fit on the tip if a pin! We are usually only visible when we are in large groups or colonies or under a microscope. However, there is actually a described bacterium that is as big as the period at the end of this sentence.

Color: We can be all different colors, but most of the colors you see in pictures of us are from special dyes and stains used by researchers to see us better and distinguish different kinds of microbes.

Bacteria "Anatomy"
Bacterial Shapes
  • Bacterial cells can be spherical, rod shaped, or spiral shaped.
  • Rods = bacilli (singular form is bacillus)
  • Spirals = spirilla (singular form is spirillum)
  • Spheres = cocci (singlular form is coccus)
Hotsprings!

Microbes can thrive at temperatures where plants and animals cannot survive. In fact, thermophilic archaea are the only things that can live near 120 degrees Celcius (248 F, THAT'S HOTTER THAN BOILING WATER!). As water from hot spring sources flows away, it cools down, which makes it more attractive to some other kinds of organisms.

Algae of many different types can share some of the warm springs with bacteria. For the most part, microbes that live in hot springs have few if any competition or predators!

Many hot springs are dangerous as a result of not only their high temperature, but also because they have varying levels of chemicals that are harmful to many organisms such as high levels of sulfide.

In warm springs, microbes have to share the waters with many organisms. The enviroment is not only stable but comfortable! Nematodes, various aquatic insects, amphibians, and even fish, like the desert pupfish, are all common spring mates in the cooler springs.

There are over 457 hotsprings in Nevada! Each one has its own community of unique organisms!

Hot springs have become a common recreational destination for vacationers. Some springs have been tested and manipulated to be safe for swimming and soaking. Look into some of these locations and perhaps visit some of these locations with your family but be aware of the rules for the area and be careful around hot springs. Many of them are too hot for our bodies to survive and some have harmful chemicals.

Can you believe that some microbes actually eat rocks/minerals!? These thermophilic archaea are considered "autotrophic". You are probably familiar with plants being autotrophic, as they use carbon dioxide from the air and the energy from the sun. Microbes can be photosynthetic like plants, in the case of cyanobacteria and algae, but they can also be "lithoautotrophs" or "chemoautotrophs", which obtain energy directly from chemicals in the spring. Simply put, they use energy that is already stored in the chemical bonds of compounds. By oxidizing the compounds, the energy stored in the bonds can be used by the bacteria.

Some of the inorganic compounds used by lithoautotrophs are ferrous iron and sulfur. You are actually considered a chemoheterotroph, as you get both energy and carbon from chemicals you eat (AKA FOOD!).

Very... very... carefully! The water is often tested for mineral content and other compounds, temperature and characteristics like pH. The organisms in the springs are collected and brought back to the laboratory for analysis.

Here, these researchers are using an instrument called a bubble stripper that replaces gases in a water sample with nitrogen and then allows the scientists to test the gas that comes out of the water and evaluate its component gases.

water testing

Dr. Chris Romanek, Adam Socki, Hayley McLeod sample gases in Washoe County, Nevada.

 

Many different kinds of scientists work together to learn more about hot springs and their inhabitants:

Every research topic often has many different aspects that are investigated by all sorts of different kinds of researchers. Researchers may be of different ages, genders, cultural and ethnic backgrounds, and they even specialize in different scientific fields. You can be a researcher too!

1. How many bacteria do you think could fit on the tip of a pin? About 500 to 1000!!!

2. What shapes do bacteria come in? Rods call bacilli - Spheres called cocci - Spirals called spirilla.

3. Can anything live in 120 degree Celsius water? YES! Thermophilic archaea!

4. How many hotsprings are in Nevada? Over 457!

Dr. Brian Hedlund

Dr. Brian Hedlund is an assistant professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Washington and started his research on hot springs at the University of Regensburg in Germany. His research centers around microbial life in hotsprings. One of the main goals of his research is to learn which chemicals support chemolithotrophic life in different kinds of hot springs.

Tune in to Episode Two to find out more about what makes these desert organisms so special! Episode Two highlights hot springs of Nevada and their microbial inhabitants!
Stalking the Mysterious Microbe - for great experiment ideas!
The Microbe Zoo - for info about different microbial habitats.
Living Bacteria Through the Microscope - for awesome bacteria pics!
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