ÖVN 1108 is a research/discovery-based course. Most of the field and lab work is designed and set up with the goal in mind that the students' reults can be followed up on by staff and future students at the partner institutes and may eventually lead to publishable discoveries. Here are a few of the many discoveries ÖVN staff and students have made directly from working in the course.
Novel bacterial species
About 100 bacterial strains isolated by course students have been identified by partial 16S rDNA sequencing and, while many of the strains belong to familiar species expected to be culturable from the environments sampled, such as Cryobacterium arcticum from glacial ice and highland soils and Sphingomonas faeni from Arctic lichens, other identities were more surprising, including several apparently novel species. Among these are AL1614, a novel Bacillus isolated from wetland soil in the highlands at Svartárkot, BC0216-2, a novel Glaciimonas isolated from glacial ice in the Langjökull ice cap, LW0504 and FN1603, two novel Hymenobacter species (FN1603 is potentially a novel genus!), one isolated from a saxicolous lichen, the other from barren mountaintop soil in Kerlingarfjöll, DO1805, a novel Pseudomonas isolated from wetland soil in the highlands at Svartárkot, and AL1611, a novel Lysobacter also isolated from wetland soil in the highlands at Svartárkot.
New insights into lichen symbiotic associations
Lichens form a particularly conspicuous part of the vegetation of Iceland. These hardy fungal-algal symbiotic associations can be seen everywhere in the country, often covering large tracts of land, including otherwise bare rocks and lava. The lichen thallus contains, in addition to the fungal and algal partners, a high and diverse load of bacteria. Do they contribute to the symbiotic community? or do they prey on it? or a bit of both? The ÖVN 1108 students have contributed towards our understanding of this complex community. They have cultured, isolated and studied bacteria from a variety of Arctic lichens. Among their findings is that a surprisingly high percentage of lichen-associated bacteria are capable of solubilizing inorganic phosphates from their environment, indicating a potential role in nutrient scavenging of the lichen community. On the other hand, many of the lichen-associated bacteria turn out to be chitinolytic, indicating that these bacteria may have a role in degrading the senescing lichen thallus.
New solutions for cold-active biotech?
Many - if not indeed most - of the bacterial strains the students have isolated have biotechnologically exploitable properties. Among those we've looked at are cold-active biodegradation of environmental pollutants such as naphthalene (strains KW2202, KW2203) and 2,4-diphenoxyacetate (strains LW0504, VJ2602), secretion of various commercially important enzymes such as chitinases (e.g. strains AL1611, DO1809, FN1701, RK1804), xylanases (e.g. strains AL1405, AL1605, DO1807), lipases (e.g. strains AL1611, DO1809, VJ2601), amylases (e.g. strains AL1405, AL1603, GR1902, LW0504, RK1806), agarase (strain S143501) and laccase (strain VJ2601), production of surfactants (strains DO1809, KW2202, VJ2601) and antagonism against plant pathogens (strain LW0508).
Where you have bacteria, you're also likely to have viruses that prey on them. In ÖVN 1108, we have isolated several viruses, many of them apparently novel, from diverse environments such as sea water, hot spring mud and glacial river water. Particularly intriguing is an as yet unidentified phage that is bacteriolytic towards the novel Hymenobacter strain LW0504. Other bacteria against which the students have isolated phage include Sphingomonas, Iodobacter and Janthinobacterium, none of which have been studied extensively in regards to bacteriophage.