What can survive inside New Zealand's hot springs?
Image: Filip Fuxa/Shutterstock

New Zealand's hot springs are beautiful, but they're also one of the most extreme ecosystems on the planet. Their water can have a pH of more than 10, close to that of household ammonia, is often salty as the ocean, and can reach temperatures of up to 90 degrees Celsius, making it extremely inhospitable for most life forms.

But tiny bacteria known as extremophiles have been found to not only survive these conditions, but also thrive in them, using unique mechanisms to stay alive. It's the pigment of these extreme bacteria that give the hot springs their iconic colours.

In California's Yellowstone National Park, studying the survival techniques of similar extremophiles has led to some important breakthroughs. For example the Thermus aquatics bacteria in Yellowstone National Park contains an enzyme that can effectively ‘photocopy’ DNA, a Nobel Prize-winning discovery which is now being used in one of the most important tools in molecular biology, as Jamie Morton writes in the New Zealand Herald.

Now a new project is searching the relatively untouched hot springs across New Zealand’s North Island to find whether extremophiles in the southern hemisphere could lead to similar breakthroughs.

The two-year 1,000 Springs Project, led by researchers from the University of Waikato and New Zealand science organisation GNS Science, will search (you guessed it) 1,000 different hot springs. This is the first project to study these unique creatures in New Zealand, which usually live in temperatures ranging from 60 to 90 degrees Celsius and are around one thousandth of a millimetre in diameter.

"There's a multitude of things you could find from these micro-organisms," Dr Matthew Stott of GNS Science told the New Zealand Herald.

"You can use micro-organisms to break down cellulose in order to make ethanol for biofuels, or in medicine, you could find micro-organisms that generate anti-microbial agents, which could be used as thermo-stable antibiotics."

The researchers are sampling the springs with a specially-designed pole and flasks that can withstand the high temperatures of the pools. The water is then filtered to capture the tens of thousands of microorganisms within each sample, and their DNA is then extracted, sequenced and compared to an international database to identify any known species.

"We can identify about 70,000 micro-organisms per sample - that's something we've never been able to do before, and it allows us to make all kinds of hypotheses and ecological inferences,” said Stott.

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