Scientists Discover Volcanic Microbe That Could Unlock New Frontier in Carbon Capture Technology

Scientists Discover Volcanic Microbe That Could Unlock New Frontier in Carbon Capture Technology

The project explores Earth’s most extreme, CO2-rich environments to identify ‘extremophile’ microbes that may offer unique solutions for our planet’s climate crisis

LOS ANGELES, April 19, 2023 /PRNewswire/ — Seed Health, a microbiome science company, today announced its latest environmental research collaboration, led by Dr. Braden Tierney and his team at The Two Frontiers Project (2FP), to discover microorganisms that thrive in extreme, CO2-rich environments, empowering novel solutions for carbon dioxide (CO2) reduction. Utilizing state-of-the-art scientific methods, the research team has already discovered novel cyanobacteria so efficient at consuming carbon dioxide that they appear to outperform other best-in-class carbon-capturing microbes. The group has already completed the first two expeditions, one off the coast of Sicily and the other in Colorado’s Rocky Mountains. Funded by Seed Health’s environmental division, SeedLabs, this research could help power next-generation carbon sequestration technology.

Carbon Remediation Demands Radical Innovation
For decades, the world has struggled to curb greenhouse gas emissions. Fossil fuel consumption, deforestation, and industrial activities persistently raise atmospheric CO2 levels, fueling climate change and unprecedented ocean acidification. Recently, the United Nations’ IPCC emphasized the necessity of CO2 removal for meaningful climate change impact.

2FP’s innovative, data-driven approach to studying Earth’s CO2-rich environments is uniquely positioned to discover microbes ideal for carbon capture, propelling the development of advanced carbon sequestration technologies. This research not only fosters a sustainable future on Earth but could also address CO2-related health risks of space exploration and support human habitation on CO2-rich planets.

“Microbial ‘dark matter’ holds immense potential for understanding and improving the health of our planet. The discovery of an extremophilic microbe in Yellowstone’s hot springs half a century ago enabled the development of modern PCR testing; with the Two Frontiers Project, we’re taking the same philosophy of microbial exploration and scaling it with next-generation sequencing technologies,” explained Dr. Tierney. “With SeedLabs, we’ve already made groundbreaking progress and can continue to mine this research for applications in carbon capture and beyond.”

Harnessing the Power of Microbes for Next-Gen Carbon Capture
Collaborating with researchers from the University of Palermo, the team’s first expedition sampled water, sediment, and other sources of microbial life surrounding volcanic CO2 seeps near Vulcano, a small island off Sicily’s coast. Next, in conjunction with a broader team from Harvard Medical School, Colorado State University, and the University of Wisconsin-Madison, they cultured specific carbon-capturing organisms from these samples in a lab environment that favors the growth of microbes with the most voracious appetite for CO2. Through this work, the researchers isolated a never-before-seen volcanic green photosynthetic bacteria.

“These bacteria appear to grow naturally in these volcanic plumes, efficiently using the plentiful CO2; when measured against some of the fastest-growing cyanobacteria described, the strain was more efficient at carbon capture under several conditions. They also seem to have adapted to the bubbling, churning environment of the volcanic plumes by becoming denser and sinking more readily –– an unusual trait that could prove useful for potentially capturing carbon and sinking it into the deep ocean for sequestration,” said Max Schubert, Ph.D., a Harvard researcher who worked on the project. Early data also suggest this strain can even convert captured carbon into valuable compounds like biodegradable PHA bioplastic.

Following the first expedition’s success, the team explored carbonated springs in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, where dissolved CO2 concentrations are up to a thousand times higher than Sicily’s volcanic seeps. Using Oxford Nanopore’s MinION system, they sequenced DNA in the field and designed media on-site to target and isolate carbon-capture-efficient microbes. This groundbreaking technique integrates hundreds of years of microbiological practice with cutting-edge DNA sequencing technology, a fundamental shift in how remote science is done in extreme environments.

“Beyond our human research, we founded SeedLabs to harness the power of microbes to enhance biodiversity and restore ecosystems impacted by human activity. With this collaboration, we have the potential to power the ‘bio-revolution’ in carbon technology and uncover novel solutions to address the climate crisis,” said Seed Health Co-Founder Raja Dhir.

An Open-Source ‘Living Database’
Dr. Tierney’s team is creating a unique, open-source ‘living database’ of extreme microbiomes, combining DNA sequencing data with a biobank of thousands of distinct environmental and biological samples. Leveraging their machine learning and microbial bioinformatics expertise, the team can continue investigating the biology from their field expeditions long after returning to the lab. The banked material also allows them to revisit the stored samples and culture additional organisms of interest based on their computational analysis. This innovative approach pairing DNA sequencing with a cultivated biobank at such a scale is unprecedented in extremophile microbiology, ensuring the preservation of valuable metadata and biological material for future research and development.

This latest initiative broadens SeedLabs’ environmental focus beyond probiotic innovations for ecosystem restoration to encompass cutting-edge research and microbial technologies that address the most significant hurdles presented by climate change. As part of its commitment to scientific translation and communication, the company engaged freediver and underwater photographer John Kowitz to accompany the research team in the field, capturing content on-site.

“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,” stated Seed Health Scientific Board Member George Church, Ph.D. “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.”

Learn more about SeedLabs—
Learn more about The Two Frontiers Project––

About SeedLabs
SeedLabs is the environmental research division of microbiome science company Seed Health. Founded on the notion of One Health –– that human health and environmental health are intertwined and interdependent –– SeedLabs advances emergent environmental research and microbial innovations to recover ecosystems impacted by human activity and address some of the greatest challenges presented by climate change.

Current SeedLabs projects encompass microbial innovations for honey bee preservation, coral reef regeneration, and plastic waste management.

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SOURCE Seed Health

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