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The colder it gets, the more life you find: alpine permafrost is rich in micro-organisms

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Muot da Barba Peider, a mountain peak beneath Piz Muragl in the Upper Engadine. At almost 3,000 meters above sea level, the average annual temperature here is –3 °C. The soil below a depth of 1.5 m is per­manently frozen, as evidenced by SLF’s long-term monitoring data. Surely, nothing can survive in this permafrost – or can it?

For the first time, soil samples from the alpine permafrost have been searched for life by WSL micro­biologists Beat Frey and Martin Hartmann. The results are surprising: they found up to 1,000 different types of organisms, many of them unknown, or virtually unknown, until now. Furthermore, the diversity of bacteria, fungi and other micro-organisms is greater in the permafrost than in the thawed and active soil layer above. The two researchers have analyzed the permafrost microbiome and found that a large number of the organisms in the permafrost do not have known relatives. “We’re cultivating some of them now in the lab to find out what they need to survive,” explains Frey.

The unknown micro-organisms also have the potential to be harmful if the permafrost contains organisms detrimental to humans and animals. If the permafrost were to thaw, for example, these organisms would reach the valley via the meltwater and arrive at heavily populated areas. However, they are also interesting on a biotechnological level; for example, in the development of environmentally friendly chemicals. (Lisa Bose, Diagonal 1/16)