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Epic Mountain Hike Leads to Discovery of New Microbes

Our volunteers at Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation are exploring the farthest reaches of the globe, and sometimes, they accomplish amazing things. After years of sampling from high mountain lakes in the Pacific Northwest, the work of our hikers and climbers gathering water from alpine lakes has paid off.

Their samples provided the basis for ASC partner scientist Dr. Loren Bahls to discover a new genus of diatom.

This means that during a solo weekend backpacking trip in the Olympic Mountains, Washington, ASC adventurer Craig Weiland not only climbed Mount Deception, he was able to give back to conservation. Craig and others did this around the northwest, on trips to places including Crater Lake, Oregon, Montana’s Beartooth Mountains, and Yellowstone National Park.

Diatoms are essential to the health of the planet. These single-celled photosynthetic organisms form the base of nearly all aquatic food chains, and they account for around 40 percent of carbon fixation and oxygen production worldwide, according Dr. Bahls, who curates the Montana Diatom Collection.

Diatom
The black line serves as a 10-micron (0.01mm) scale in this microscopic photo of Kurtkrammeria weilandii. (Photo courtesy Loren Bahls)

“Diatoms appeared sometime during the Cretaceous, about the same time as flowering plants and when dinosaurs ruled the land,” explains Dr. Bahls. “When you slip on the rocks in a mountain stream, you are slipping on a thin layer of diatoms and the mucilage they produce.”

He named the new genus Kurtkrammeria after the German diatom researcher Kurt Krammer, and the new type species Kurtkrammeria weilandii (pictured at left) for Craig Weiland one of the most active volunteers on the project. Craig’s photos from his sampling adventures in the Cascades are featured in the slide show above.

K. weilandii, Dr. Bahls explained, exhibits all the physical features that distinguish the new genus from other genera, and is endemic to the Pacific Northwest.

This new genus will help taxonomists better classify diatoms and recognize relationships among and differences between similar taxa. ASC volunteers contributed samples for the study from Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, California, Alberta and British Columbia.

“Most of the samples that I used to describe the new genus were collected by ASC volunteers from small lakes and ponds in the mountains of the Pacific Northwest,” Dr. Bahls said. “The new genus is found only in remote bodies of water with difficult access. I couldn’t have done it without their help.”

In the big picture, we can learn more about water quality, ecology and climate by studying diatoms.

Different diatom species have distinct tolerances and ranges for environmental variables including pH, salinity, nutrient concentration, suspended sediment, elevation and human disturbance, so scientists use them extensively in environmental assessment and monitoring, according to Diatoms of the United States. In addition, because diatom cell walls are made of either silicon dioxide—essentially glass—or opal, they don’t decompose, they can be used to study historic climates.

After 49 years of studying diatoms, the discovery is a first for Dr. Bahls.

Diatoms are the charismatic microflora,” he says. “They are to microscopic organisms as grizzly bears are to mammals. They are beautiful for their intricate designs and symmetry, and amazing for their incredible variety. Once you’ve seen a diatom, any diatom, under a quality microscope, you’re hooked!”

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