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The next era of carbon capture may be “extremophile” volcanic microbes

Our Earth is full of carbon-capturing organisms, and just when you think you’ve seen it all — ventures to scale the natural abilities of algae, rocks, crops, critical species, and trees — scientists discover a carbon-eating volcanic microbe that could lead to an even more efficient way to capture plant-warming CO2.


Dr. Tierney collects samples in the volcanic CO2 seeps near Vulcano.
Dr. Tierney collects samples in the volcanic CO2 seeps near Vulcano. Credit: Seed Health / John Kowitz

Back in September, scientists at Two Frontiers Project (2FP), a global scientific exploration group whose research goes from the bottom of the ocean to the galaxy beyond Earth, in collaboration with researchers at the University of Palermo, discovered a new microbe at Baia de Levante, a bay nestled next to the Italian Aeolian island of Vulcano off the coast of Sicily.


According to the team, the bay is one of the “only characterized shallow carbon seeps in the world.” Aptly named, a carbon seep is where carbon naturally seeps out of the ocean floor, causing the surrounding seawater to become more acidic. Studying carbon seeps give scientists a glimpse into what our oceans may look like in the future as we continue to spew billions of tons of carbon into the atmosphere by burning fossil fuels.


Another volcanic carbon seep is located in Ili Ili Bua Bua, Normanby Island, Papua New Guinea. Ili Ili Bua Bua and Baia de Levante are both extremely rare ecosystems, but where some scientists are observing Ili Ili Bua Bua to study ocean acidification, the researchers at 2FP are studying both the acidification’s effect on coral reef degradation and taking Baia de Levante’s resilient carbon-capturing microbes back to the lab… and replicating them.


Across the bay, levels of CO2 range from a low pH to one that is unfathomably high. The goal of 2FP’s overall research is to collect organisms like this — which they call extremophiles — that survive and thrive in CO2-rich environments and turn them into novel solutions for CO2 reduction.


2FP’s dive team collected samples from the bay’s entire gradient. In conjunction with a broader team from Harvard Medical School, Colorado State University, and the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the researchers conducted paired DNA sequencing and cultured the organisms with “the most voracious appetite for CO2.”


Like the process of cooking up cultivated meat and making vaccines, the culturing process removes cells from tissues, places them in a favorable environment, and grows them in controlled conditions.


“Microbes – like bacteria and fungi – excel at adapting to these “extreme” environments; they always find a way to survive, often by living off of what makes a given ecosystem particularly brutal,” the 2FP team wrote via their Instagram.


“They’ve had 3.8 billion years of evolution to optimize their physiology for conditions that would be untenable for us, as humans. For example, there are bacteria that live off the fumes of hydrothermal vents in the deep ocean, whereas others survive in the complex geochemistry of Yellowstone’s hot springs.”


In an April press release statement, Dr. Braden T. Tierney, co-founder and the executive director of 2FP and a researcher at Weill Cornell Medical College and Harvard Medical School, said the discovery of Yellowstone’s extremophilic microbes “half a century ago enabled the development of modern PCR testing,” the method used for testing for COVID-19.


“With the Two Frontiers Project, we’re taking the same philosophy of microbial exploration and scaling it with next-generation sequencing technologies.”


From their culturing experiments, the researchers isolated a never-before-seen volcanic green photosynthetic bacteria, that Dr. Max Schubert, a Harvard researcher who worked on the project says appears to grow naturally and has even adapted to in the “bubbling, churning environment of the volcanic plumes by becoming denser and sinking more readily.”


This unusual sinking trait could help collect the CO2 absorbed and could “prove useful for potentially capturing carbon and sinking it into the deep ocean for sequestration,” Schubert said.


On top of CO2 sequestration, these microbes may also be useful for biodegradable PHA bioplastic, early data suggests. Polyhydroxyalkanoates or PHAs are polyesters produced naturally by the Earth’s bacteria and a handful of startups are trying to turn waste, whether it be methane or food waste into what they call ‘the holy grail of plastic replacement.’


But before we get into talks of “holy grails,” it’s important to note that the microbes are by no means a silver bullet to our ballooning emissions problem, which many scientists say industrial carbon removal can’t solve alone.


Instead, Tierney told The Guardian, “There really isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution to climate change and carbon capture. There will be circumstances where the tree is going to outperform microbes or fungi. But there will also be circumstances where you really want a fast-growing aquatic microbe that sinks,” like the bay’s volcanic microbe.


The team at 2FP is working to find more of these extremophilic microbes.

 a thermal pool in Colorado’s Rocky Mountains.
Researchers document a thermal pool in Colorado’s Rocky Mountains. Credit: Seed Health / John Kowitz

Back in February, the team traveled to the Rocky Mountains’ hot springs in Colorado where the CO2 levels are reportedly a thousand times higher than Sicily's volcanic seeps. On-site, they isolated the carbon-capturing microbes and the data will serve as the foundations of a ‘living database’ of extreme microbes for use by the scientific community.


Plus, this winter, the team has another yet-to-be-announced expedition in the works.


“We study this microbial malleability,” the team wrote in their Instagram post. “We go to extreme environments, explore the life that lives there, and figure out exactly how we use its mechanisms of survival to build next generation approaches to major societal problems, like carbon capture.”


The project is the latest initiative of SeedLabs, the environmental division of Seed Health a microbiome science company aiming to use microbes for positive impacts on human and planetary health.


Currently, the research company also has projects for studying how microbes can change the future of plastic, aid in the survival of honey bees, and increase the resiliency of corals, along with upcoming, or as they call it culturing, projects related to agriculture and biomaterials.


“Just as we've witnessed the tremendous impact of the microbiome on human health, this groundbreaking environmental research will be instrumental in unlocking the microbiome’s potential to tackle some of the most pressing challenges facing our planet, from carbon remediation to resource management to ecological preservation,” Seed Health Scientific Board Member Dr. George Church said in a statement.


“As we delve deeper into the untapped world of microbial life, we uncover transformative solutions that can significantly improve planetary health and pave the way for a more sustainable future.”


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