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Grant to UA makes Kartchner Caverns a Microbial Observatory

University of Arizona researchers will investigate the lives of Kartchner Caverns State Park's tiniest inhabitants with the help of a $1.6 million grant from the National Science Foundation.

The five-year grant to the UA will add Kartchner Caverns, part of the Arizona State Parks system, to the National Science Foundation's worldwide network of Microbial Observatories.

Research at the networks' sites is revealing the goings-on of the Earth's smallest and most poorly known life forms. Kartchner Caverns is the only cave in the network.

"We thought Kartchner Caverns was perfect for this. It's one of the top 10 caves in the world in terms of mineralogical diversity," said principal investigator Raina M. Maier, a UA professor of soil, water and environmental science. "And the development of Kartchner is a model internationally for the development of a cave as a living system. It's a model for preservation."

The researchers will catalog the microbial inhabitants of the cave, study how tourism affects their diversity and investigate whether microorganisms are involved in the growth of cave formations such as stalactites and stalagmites. The team also hopes to find microbes that could be exploited for medical, industrial and biotechnology applications.

The formations at Kartchner are still growing. Robert Casavant, science and research manager for Arizona State Parks said research conducted in some other caves linked the growth of cave formations, or speleothems, and microorganisms.

Maier's previous research in Kartchner indicates that the heavily visited areas have different types of microorganisms than do the cave's pristine areas.

Maier said, "We don't know yet what role -- if any -- bacteria have in speleothem formation. But if you have this drastic shift in the microbial community structure and these bacteria are necessary and important for speleothem formation, you may be losing important population
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Contact: Mari N. Jensen
mnjensen@email.arizona.edu
520-626-9635
University of Arizona
19-Oct-2006


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