Chasing Bugs in the Bowels of the Earth

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Chasing Bugs in the Bowels of the Earth

Postby Wayne Harrison » Jun 27, 2007 9:23 pm

By David Ewing Duncan

As microbiologists scour the earth's most inaccessible places to find ever more weird--and potentially useful--microbugs, I'm half-expecting a new reality show to pop up on the Sci-Fi Channel, or perhaps ESPN-5: Extreme Microbes!

Scientists studying the tiniest of bugs have long traveled to peculiar locales, but now the entire field has been invigorated afresh by the new age of metagenomics--the study of groupings of bacteria found in, say, a bucket of water, a patch of human skin, or a spade full of muck. Armed with sophisticated new technologies to identify millions of different kinds of bacteria inhabiting a specific mini environment, the new "metageneticists" are deploying to nooks and crannies ranging from acid spills to deep caverns in search of microbial communities.

In, writer Josie Glausiusz describes a spelunking expedition led by microbiologist Diana Northup a thousand feet below the earth, deep into New Mexico's Lechuguilla Cave. She and her team from the University of New Mexico hiked through tangled miles of passageways while rappelling down pits, traversing perilous edges of cliffs, and tramping around underground lakes on their way to collect bacteria that deposit manganese crusts and oxidized iron on cavern walls.

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Wayne Harrison
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