While Rincón de la Vieja National Park, in the northwestern province of Guanacaste, is visibly teeming with biodiversity, it is hard to imagine anything surviving inside its pools of bubbling mud.
Here, at the foot of the active Rincón de la Vieja Volcano, a team of scientists, many from the University of Costa Rica (UCR), has uncovered a microscopic new species inhabiting these seemingly inhospitable pools, considered deadly for most life forms because of their high temperatures, acidity and toxicity levels.
The significance of the discovery stretches far beyond the mere existence of the specimen. The tiny, single-celled organism could have a revolutionary impact on mitigating the effects of global warming and advancing biotechnology, conservation and even exobiology – a branch of biology that searches for extraterrestrial life, according to Marielos Mora, coordinator of environmental microbiology at UCR and a leading participant in the study that unearthed the microorganism.
Euglena pailasensis, which took its scientific name from the national park’s pailas, the mud pools it inhabits, is a unique microorganism found so far only at Rincón de la Vieja,Mora told The Tico Times.
Its discovery is part of an investigation that has spanned almost 10 years, during which approximately 25 national and foreign researchers took some 200 samples from the area. The cost of the project has reached approximately $90,000, funded by the Spanish Agency for International Cooperation (AECI), Florida Ice and Farm Company S.A., the American Society for Microbiology (ASM) and UCR, according to Mora.
The initial stages of research on microorganisms in the area will culminate this year when researchers officially present the Environment Ministry’s Guanacaste Conservation Area, which manages Rincón de la Vieja National Park, with an informational guide geared toward visitors to the volcano.
The “Rincón de la Vieja Guide to Microorganisms” was published in Spanish in April. Researchers are waiting for publication of an English edition to officially hand over approximately 800 guides. The visitor guide project was financed with an $18,000 endowment from Florida Ice and Farm in 2003, said Lorena Uribe, environmental microbiology researcher at UCR and another leader in the Rincón de la Vieja study.
The researcher said she expects to present the guides to the conservation area before the end of the year. They should then become available for visitors to purchase at the Rincón de la Vieja National Park ranger stations.
To obtain a copy, contact Mora or Uribe at firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.
Another project financed by Florida Ice and Farm’s program, which funds cultural, scientific, technological and educational projects and is called “Contributions to Creativity and Excellence,” is a Web site for children the researchers are creating with the Omar Dengo Foundation, a nonprofit technological education organization.
The site, which should be ready in approximately two months,will offer a virtual tour of Rincón de la Vieja park with information on the microorganisms found there.
The UCR researchers, who have worked alongside undergraduate and postgraduate UCR students, Spanish and U.S. researchers during the past 10 years, plan to continue their investigations in the area to study microorganisms that are completely invisible to the naked eye. Unlike Euglena pailasensis, whose chlorophyll component gives it a visibly green shade, colorless microorganisms abound at Rincón de la Vieja.
“The euglena is what has been published (in a scientific journal) so far, but what is coming is very diverse and very interesting,” said Uribe, explaining that colorless bacteria can survive at even higher temperatures than the euglena.
Many microorganisms have been identified in Rincón de la Vieja’s extreme environments, including single-celled algae known as cyanidium, bacteria, and archaea, similar in composition to bacteria.
However, because the euglena was distinguished as a new species and further research and DNA testing confirmed this in 2002, its discovery merited publication in scientific journals. That year, the find was published in the journal of the Federation of European Microbiological Societies (FEMS), according to Mora.
Revolution Under the Microscope
Even though each unicellular Euglena pailasensis is microscopic, visitors at Rincón de la Vieja might be able to identify them collectively as patches of green that float along the highly acidic gurgling mud pools.
Like plants, these microorganisms have chlorophyll, a pigment that allows them to complete the process of photosynthesis, according to the “Guide to Microorganisms.”
The euglena resists conditions that would burn human beings. The temperature of its habitat ranges from approximately 40 to 45 degrees Celsius and its acidic pH of one or two is similar to the pH of the human stomach.
According to Mora, the combination of these two characteristics makes the microorganism unique. So far, only microorganisms containing either one of these traits have been identified.
The microbiologist explained that the study of microorganisms such as the unique euglena could lead to a leap from biodiversity analysis to revolutionary applications of their studies.
For example, global warming, which both researchers qualified as an undeniable reality, may not be reverted, but scientists can start preparing for it, according to Mora.
She explained that studying how microorganisms survive at extreme temperatures could be helpful to develop similar traits to help plants, which are vital to human survival, adapt to higher temperatures.
“There are methods through which key enzymes could be modified to have organisms function at higher temperatures without having to wait for evolution to take its course,” Mora said, adding that scientists around the world are already studying these processes.
If the enzymes of these microorganisms were isolated for study, they could also be applied in biotechnology, she explained. For example, they could be used in all kinds of industrial processes such as production of ethanol and bioplastic.
According to Uribe, enzymes are already used for industrial production, and the more resistant they are to all types of environments, like those of the Rincón de la Vieja microorganisms, the more valuable they become.
Apart from the resemblance of the extreme environments they inhabit to those in the beginning of life on Earth, they could also resemble environments on other planets, the researchers explained.
Microorganism studies are important to exobiology because they could shed light on the kinds of life that might exist on other planets with similar “toxic” environments.
In terms of conservation, these applications give added value to the microorganisms and their habitats, according to Mora.
In the past, Rincón de la Vieja has been studied as a source of geothermal energy, a procedure researcher say could suck dry the extreme environments that have been under study for a decade. If the park becomes threatened by geothermal energy development, the country’s scientific community would be forced to take action to stop it, Mora said.