A Portland State professor has recently helped discover a single-celled microbe that thrives in a harsh, acidic environment deep below the ocean’s surface. Dr. Anna-Louise Reysenbach, an associate professor in the biology department, was part of the team that collected the microbe from hydrothermal vents in the Pacific Ocean. Called a thermoacidophile, the acid-loving organism is now being grown in a lab at PSU.
Until now it has been impossible to cultivate microbes like this in a laboratory, making it difficult to examine many important characteristics of the organism. The lab studies will be useful to observe the way the microbe lives and how it reacts to its surrounding environment.
The microbe, which Reysenbach named Aciduli-profundum boonei, lives in an extreme environment. With high temperatures reaching 130 to 165 degrees, the microbe’s acidic environment would be impossible for most organisms, including humans, to survive in.
Iron, carbon and sulfur mainly make up the diet of the microbe and according to Reysenbach this could make it potentially useful in the cleanup of heavy metals.
”Basic scientific discoveries often lead to applications that you had no idea they ever had,” Reysenbach said, adding that the microbe could be useful in removing the last bits of copper and gold from mines.
The discovery of life in such extreme conditions could also provide some insight into how life could occur on other planets.
”Understanding life as we know it on our planet really helps us understand what to look for elsewhere,” Reysenbach said when asked if her discovery provided any insight into the study of life in space. “Being more informed about our own planet will help us make much better decisions on how to sample, for example, Mars.”
Reysenbach expressed an interest in studying life on other planets and said that NASA funds one of her projects.
Reysenbach grew up in South Africa. She studied at the University of Witwatersrand and graduated from the University of Cape Town with a Ph.D. in biology.
”I generally always wanted to be a scientist. I think it was just curiosity about my environment,” she said. “I was very outdoorsy in South Africa, there’s a lot of wilderness there.”
After learning to scuba dive, Reysenbach discovered her love of water and water sports with her need “to be closer to water.” Her interest in microbiology drew her focus to microbes in extreme environments like the bottom of the ocean, allowing her to combine her interests with her research.
Reysenbach was a professor at Rutgers for three years before she came to PSU. She has been a professor at PSU since 1999.
”For me the nicest surprise about taking this job was that the students were actually a lot more fun to have in class, a lot of the students were much more mature in a way,” she said. “I really enjoy the teaching. The teaching is a lot more fun than it was at Rutgers.”
Reysenbach expressed appreciation of how supportive the university has been of her research. “I’ve been able to flourish here, without getting distracted by all the things that professors get distracted by,” she said.
Having a taste for adventure, Reysenbach has lived in several places around the United States, including Seattle, Indiana and New Jersey. Her research has taken her to the bottom of the ocean and all around the world, to places such as Costa Rica, National Yellowstone Park, Iceland, the Azores and New Zealand.