The discovery of bacteria with interesting properties in underground caves

In a bay in Algeria where probiotic bacteria were found. Right is Bara Rehamnia, Visiting Researcher in Natuschka Lee´s Research Group at Umeå University. Credit: club spéléologie et sport de montagne de Béjaa

A research team from Umeå University, SLU University and Algeria has found bacteria with a number of interesting properties in previously unexplored caves hundreds of meters deep in Algeria. One such characteristic is the breakdown of gluten, which can be of benefit to people with gluten sensitivity. The results have been published in spectrum of microbiology.

says Natoshka Lee, a researcher in the department of ecology and environmental sciences at Umeå University.

When Jules Verne wrote his novel Journey to the Center of the Earth, many people downplayed the wild fantasies surrounding the existence of life in the underworld. It took several decades before biologists began to seriously explore life underground.

Today, it is known that at least 30% of microorganisms on Earth live in the depths of the Earth – under conditions completely different from life forms on the Earth’s surface, for example without sunlight and therefore without plants. Research into underground life forms can give us interesting information about how life evolved in different ways on Earth and whether underground life could exist on other celestial bodies, such as Mars.

Caves can act as a natural gateway to the underworld. Caves have been found all over the world, but only a small part of them have been explored. In the past decade, cave research has received a lot of attention – even in the context of space research, where some planets, such as Mars, have been found to contain many caves.

In the current study, Natuschka Lee, in collaboration with Baraa Rehamnia, until recently had a Ph.D. A student from the University of Constantine in Algeria (doing her thesis on this research topic during the summer of 2022) and Ramon Coquet, a researcher in the Department of Plant Breeding at SLU in Nara, search for interesting properties of spore-forming bacteria in hitherto unexplored caves hundreds of meters deep in Algeria.

These bacteria are closely related to the Bacillus group, a group of bacteria that has been much studied in astrobiology for their remarkable survivability and which on our planet plays a key role in many different contexts, partly as pathogens, and partly as beneficial microbes in both the ecological environment. and biotechnology contexts.

“For example, we found strains that can produce antimicrobial substances or that can break down gluten, a substance that can cause inflammatory reactions in the intestines of many people. The bacteria have also been found to be able to withstand the harsh conditions found in the digestive tract,” says Natoshka Lee. .

In the future, researchers will investigate whether these bacteria could be useful for the biotech industry, for example, gluten sensitivity.

Can life on Earth live on Mars?

more information:
Baraa Rehamnia et al, Examination of spore-forming bacteria with potential of probiotics in pristine Algerian caves, spectrum of microbiology (2022). doi: 10.1128/spectrum .00248-22

Presented by Umea University

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