Research Discovers Cyanobacteria Unlocking New Carbon Capture Innovations

Research Discovers Cyanobacteria Unlocking New Carbon Capture Innovations - Carbon Herald
Dr. Tierney collects samples in the volcanic CO2 seeps near Vulcano. Credit: Seed Health/ John Kowitz

Scientists are making major advancements towards rapidly accelerating the world’s capacity to remove and sequester access CO2 emissions in the atmosphere. Seed Health is a microbial sciences company pioneering applications of microbes for human and planetary health, that announced its latest environmental research showing microorganisms that can perform extremely well in capturing carbon.

The research is a collaboration, led by Dr. Braden Tierney and his team at The Two Frontiers Project (2FP), that aims to discover microorganisms that thrive in extreme, CO2-rich environments. This approach could potentially unlock novel solutions for carbon dioxide reduction. 

The researchers managed to succeed in discovering new cyanobacteria so efficient at consuming carbon dioxide that it outperforms other best-in-class carbon capture microbes. Cyanobacteria, also known as blue-green algae, are microscopic organisms found naturally in all types of water. These cyanobacteria grow in volcanic plumes and possess a huge appetite for CO2. Its qualities are also considered valuable in converting captured CO2 into biodegradable PHA bioplastic.

Researchers document a thermal pool in Colorado’s Rocky Mountains. Credit: Seed Health/ John Kowitz

“… 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. 

To discover the bacteria, the researchers conducted expeditions in Vulcano – a small island off Sicily’s coast and in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado. The first expedition near Sicily was done in a collaboration with researchers from the University of Palermo. The team sampled water, sediment, and other sources of microbial life surrounding volcanic CO2 seeps.

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After the expedition, a broader team from Harvard Medical School, Colorado State University, and the University of Wisconsin-Madison, cultured specific carbon-capturing organisms from the samples in a lab environment. The researchers isolated a never-before-seen volcanic green photosynthetic bacteria.

The second expedition involved exploring carbonated springs in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, where dissolved CO2 concentrations are up to a thousand times higher than Sicily’s volcanic seeps. 

Credit: Phanom Nuangchomphoo | Shutterstock

They sequenced DNA in the field and designed media on-site to target and isolate carbon-capture-efficient microbes, using Oxford Nanopore’s MinION system. The technique is also groundbreaking and a fundamental shift in how remote science is done in extreme environments.

The team is now 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. 

They are able to keep investigating the biology from their field expeditions long after returning to the lab. They can also revisit the stored samples and culture additional organisms of interest based on their computational analysis. 

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The approach is innovative – pairing DNA sequencing with a cultivated biobank at such a scale is unprecedented in extremophile microbiology. It ensures the preservation of valuable metadata and biological material for future research and development.

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

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