Great Salt Lake is a microbial wonderland
October 18, 2005
The Salt Lake Tribune
By Greg Lavine
PROMONTORY POINT - Sloshing through the pink waters of the Great Salt Lake, Bonnie Baxter creates a mini-tsunami with each step.
Waves from her hip-waders crash through ecosystems teeming with microscopic organisms able to thrive in the hypersaline lake. The often odorous body of water supports more life than the seagulls and brine shrimp that most Utahns associate with the lake.
Despite the lake's lack of respect from most Utah residents, Baxter sees it as a biological wonderland waiting to be explored.
"The people of Salt Lake City have seen their lake as a cesspool," says Baxter, a researcher at Westminster College, "and that's a tragedy."
Teaming with scientists from Brigham Young University, Baxter wants to learn about the lake's microbial inhabitants. Not since the 1970s has any group taken a serious look at microscopic creatures lurking in the salty waters, she explains.
"It's like a microbial soup," Baxter says as she splashes deeper into the water.
Answers about what is living in the lake could aid in research into subjects as diverse as preventing cancer and drilling for oil.
Baxter, who studies repair and damage of human DNA, first grew intrigued by the reddish waters of the lake's north arm. Some of the microbes floating in the lake contain pigments called carotenoids. These pigments, responsible for the reddish hue of the water, appear to protect the microbes from ultraviolet light, which can cause cancer in people.
"Humans couldn't bask in the sun all day, everyday and still be OK," Baxter says. Learning how the microbes survive ultraviolet light could provide new strategies to prevent human skin cancer.
After Baxter trudges 50 yards into the lake, BYU biology researchers Allen Harker and Don Breakwell glide by in a metal canoe. The canoe floats high above the waterline due to the extreme saline content of the water, making the boat prone to tipping.
Baxter clambers aboard as Harker and Breakwell work to avoid capsizing.
At intervals further into the lake, the BYU paddlers stop to let Baxter lean over the edge of canoe with an auger. Because the craft floats around, Baxter struggles to twist the auger into the mucky lake bed for soil sample scoops.
Each load oozes into a small plastic bag. Some hauls are dark gray and sludgelike. Others are lighter in color with the consistency of a slurry. The samples go into a cooler for their eventual trip down to Provo for analysis.
"We're trying to get a handle on the environment that these bacteria are living in," Harker says, explaining that few organisms are hardy enough to survive in this high salt concentration.
As Harker and Breakwell ply the pink waters, they glide past small clouds of black suspended in the water - the results of a natural oil seep. The fact that microbial life can flourish even in the presence of petroleum lured the BYU researchers to this part of the lake.
"How do these organisms respond to changes in their environment?" Breakwell asks.
The microbes' ability to break down petroleum is of particular interest to the oil industry. A problem that limits how much petroleum a company can extract is the consistency of the deposit. If the body of oil is too thick, sometimes salt water or brine can be added to loosen the deposit for drilling.
Understanding the microbes in the oil seep corner of the Great Salt Lake could lead to new ways to break down oil to make marginal deposits usable, he says.
While it seems the microbes could hold promise for oil spill clean-up methods, Breakwell says that is a tougher proposition. These microbes are selective about where they live and might die if moved to another environment.
Part of BYU's research into this area is to learn where the oil-afflicted ecosystem ends and where another part of the lake begins. Harker says they want to find microbes living on either side of the divide.
The BYU team and Baxter came together only after both had applied for their own National Science Foundation grant and were rejected. The former rivals decided to team up to share resources. Together, along with the recent addition of Utah State University, they are applying for a new NSF grant that would create a microbial observatory to study the entire lake.
Breakwell says it is important to look at the Great Salt Lake over several years to get a long-term view of the environment.
"Every time we come back," Baxter adds, "it's a different lake."
As conditions change, different organisms rise to prominence and others fade into the background. A multiyear study would provide a baseline to monitor the lake for future changes.
While BYU and Westminster undergraduates have learned about microbiology through collecting samples for the study, the researchers also hope the work helps educate younger students. Information gleaned from the lake could be filtered down to students in elementary, junior high and high schools.
"The Great Salt Lake is a great place to teach about biology and chemistry," Breakwell says.
Baxter is already convinced of the lake's educational merits. Wandering through the lake, she occasionally kneels to inspect objects.
"What the heck is this?" she exclaims with the enthusiastic curiosity of a child.
She pokes at the black blob and the tiny towers rising from its flat surface. "I've gotta get this back to the lab."
After Baxter picks it up, the abnormal object breaks and she returns the pieces to the water. But Baxter and colleagues will have plenty of other Great Salt Lake mysteries to keep them occupied for years to come.
Analyzing samples from the lake
Technology for biologists has come a long way since Utah State University researchers studied the microbial life of the Great Salt Lake in the 1970s. Three decades later, researchers from Brigham Young University and Westminster College have new tools at their disposal. Molecular analysis techniques make it easier to tease out what is living in the salt-infused waters. In the past, researchers would take samples from the water and try to isolate and then grow potential new organisms. But many creatures that prosper in the lake die in a lab setting. Scientists extract DNA from the water and soil samples to find various DNA "signatures" that each organism carries. If they can sequence bits of DNA from an organism, that information can be compared with databases to see if they match known microbes. Using such techniques, BYU researchers have found DNA signatures from 400 different organisms, says microbiologist Don Breakwell.