Brain Food: Living Soil

May 8, 2014

Biologist Egbert Schwartz has developed a technique to identify whether micro-organisms can grow in places where no other signs of life can be found, like the rocky, icy region of Antarctica's McMurdo Dry Valleys.

NAU biologist Egbert Schwartz conducting research in Antarctica's McMurdo Dry Valleys
Credit Egbert Schwartz

"The main focus of my research," Schwartz says, "is to figure out what microorganisms do in the wild. What they do in the soil, not just in Antarctica, but also here in Arizona and other places on earth."

Schwartz is a biology professor at Northern Arizona University. He uses a water compound known as 18-0 to detect growth in single-celled organisms.

"We took some 18-0 water down to Antarctica and we exposed the soils to 18-0 water," Schwartz says. "This is a technique we developed here at NAU. And, if an organism grows, the 18-0 oxygen from the 18-0 water will get incorporated into the DNA of the microorganisms. Down in these McMurdo Dry Valleys there are no insects, there are no plants. All there are are microorganisms: bacteria, archaea and some nematodes." Schwartz goes on to say, "if you pick up a soil sample there, you hold all the organisms in that ecosystem in your hand."

Schwartz says developing these techniques for measuring microbial growth in Antarctica might eventually be used to determine if there's life in other very dry places, like Arizona, and cold places, like Mars.