Led by CU-Boulder ecology and evolutionary biology department Professor Steve Schmidt, the group will build on its discovery of several new kingdoms of life previously unknown to science that were found west of Boulder two years ago. Although 18th century scientists divided the kingdoms of life into two groups -- plants and animals -- sophisticated DNA studies indicate there may be a dozen or more additional kingdoms made up of groups of newly described fungi and single-cell organisms, he said.
Funded by NSF's Microbial Observatories Program, much of the CU-Boulder work will focus on microorganisms living under snowfields and glaciers, Schmidt said. The new microorganisms reported by the team in 2003 were found at altitudes of 11,000 to 13,000 feet in an inhospitable region marked by nine months of snow and three months of intense sun and high winds, he said.
"The research should help us understand how the cold regions of Earth function, and how the biosphere will respond to future climate change," said Schmidt. "The research could also lead to the discovery of new antibiotics, as well as industrial enzymes that function at cold temperatures."
A 2003 study published by Schmidt and his colleagues in Science magazine showed several groups of previously unknown fungi are churning away under the snow in the dead of winter, breaking down organic and inorganic material and recycling carbon and nitrogen at a higher than expected rate. The CU-Boulder findings are causing scientists to re-evaluate estimates of natural carbon dioxide fluctuations on Earth, said Schmidt.
"We don't yet know the full extent of CO2 fluxes under the snowpack in cold regions of the world, or how diminish
Contact: Steve Schmidt
University of Colorado at Boulder