Penn State Altoona professor ‘a rising star in research’

Corien Bakermans is a Penn State Altoona professor whose study of arctic microbes is relevant to understanding the limits of life on earth and even on other planets.

From the Austrian Alps to the Canadian Arctic — as well as Spruce Creek, Pa., Bakermans has researched the genetics, physiology and ecology of cold-adapted bacteria from polar regions.

Her work is important to understanding how melting arctic soil or permafrost will affect climate change. She’s also a consultant for NASA’s planetary protection unit, a team of experts whose chief concern is to prevent earth’s microbes from potentially contaminating and colonizing Mars — or vice versa, though martian microbes are highly unlikely, she said.

Dr. Edward Levri, the head of Penn State Altoona’s division for mathematics and natural sciences, called Bakermans “a rising star in research at Penn State Altoona.”

“She studies extremophiles, microorganisms that live in places that for a long time we thought couldn’t live — at the bottom of frozen lakes in Antarctica, intense hot springs and salty seas,” Levri said.

Bakermans is internationally known. Last year, she spoke at the 23rd annual International Symposium on Polar Sciences hosted by the Korea Polar Research Institute in Incheon, Republic of Korea.

The title of her presentation was “Comparative Genomic Analyses of Bacteria from Permafrost.”

Understanding bacteria in permafrost is crucial to keeping climate change at bay, she said.

“In the soil, there are bacteria returning the carbon in plant matter to the atmosphere. It happens differently and slower in permafrost. … The interesting thing is that a lot of permafrost is starting to melt, and these organisms are starting to do more and become active. Understanding what they are going to do is going to be important,” she said.

There is a huge amount of carbon stored in the organic material in permafrost — almost double the amount of carbon that is in the atmosphere today.

The Earth’s atmosphere contains about 850 gigatons of carbon. A gigaton is 1 billion tons, about the weight of one hundred thousand school buses, according to the National Ice and Snow Data Center.

As soil defrosts, microbes decompose the ancient carbon and release carbon dioxide. The magnitude of the effect is highly uncertain, but the Permafrost Carbon Network estimates that as arctic temperatures rise, permafrosts will release the same order of magnitude of carbon as deforestation, which adds slightly more carbon dioxide than all the cars and trucks on the road all over the world.

“There is a lot of carbon in the permafrost. One microbe returning carbon from plants in the permafrost to the atmosphere may be minuscule, but they are present in billions,” Bakermans said. “Individually, they may seem insignificant, but as a huge population, they have a major impact.”

If the Earth continues to warm and a lot of permafrost thaws out, the Arctic could become an overall source of carbon to the atmosphere, and climate change would reach a tipping point, according to the National Ice and Snow Data Center.

Thawing permafrost also is a concern for freeing ancient viruses that could enter water and flow to villages and towns in Siberia, Alaska and Canada.

“This concern comes from the fact that permafrost is a big freezer. It’s been storing things for millions of years,” Bakermans said.

Aside from plant material, this big freezer includes mastodons and ancient people who were plagued by diseases.

“There are concerns that they hold viruses. Now that the permafrost is thawing, they could come back out. It’s unknown how big of a risk that will be.”

As a consultant for NASA’s Planetary Protection unit, Bakermans helps answer similar questions about extraterrestrial microbial threats.

Microbiologists have only begun to realize the potential for bacteria to actively survive — and even reproduce — in cold environments at temperatures as low 68 degrees below zero. But Mars?

“I take information from DNA from many bacteria and compare it to see what they have in common; that thing they have in common may indicate what is useful for living in the perma­frost,” she said.

Large gaps in knowledge persist about the activities and processes of microbial communities at low temperatures.

“Are we alone in the universe? This helps us understand. But I’m thinking microbial, not necessarily aliens,” Bakermans said.

For more than a decade, Bakermans has been a NASA consultant, monitoring the possibilities.

“I’m excited to be doing consulting for NASA. They want to make sure we don’t contaminate Mars with our bacteria or vice versa. There’s no evidence for bacteria on Mars, but there is evidence there was water. … As scientists, we never really know the whole answer. There’s a lot of evidence for water on Mars in the past. And a lot of NASA missions are to find whether there was life on Mars when it was wetter.”

NASA’s website states: “Planetary protection is concerned with the avoidance of organic-constituent and biological contamination in human and robotic space exploration.”

NASA takes that potential of microbial martians seriously as it sends equipment, inevitably carrying earth’s bacteria, to Mars and back.

If there was a situation in which a Martian microbe was brought back to earth, the protocol would be the same for handling viruses like Ebola, Bakermans said. “We know how to do that.”

Periodically, Bakermans and other consultants work with NASA officials by spending months combing through data and deciding what to think about the possibility of earth’s microbes surviving on mars and how to best clean equipment before and after Mars missions.

“It’s unlikely that earth microbes could live on Mars. It’s too dry and too cold, overall. But there are always weird situations that could occur. We do know there is frozen water on Mars. Any circumstances that include liquid water changes the equation,” she said.

Bakermans said she has always been a science-fiction fan thinking about life elsewhere.

That interest led her to a passion for studying micro-organisms that live in extreme temperature, acidity, alkalinity or chemical concentration.

“They are the life on our planet that live in unusual ways. I wanted to study that more,” she said.

Bakermans, from Harrisburg, was brought to Penn State Altoona as a professor nine years ago.

Her colleagues, including biology professor Carolyn Mahan, are fascinated by her side job with NASA.

Mahan noted that Bakermans’ study of extremophiles included taking samples from frozen soil in Spruce Creek and at Trough Creek State Park.

“It’s cool that she’s looking in outer space and locally for these interesting organisms,” Mahan said.

“It’s very interesting and unique work,” Mahan said of Bakermans’ role with NASA. “We certainly don’t want to bring any organism to Earth we can’t deal with. And we don’t want to inadvertently introduce organisms elsewhere. She is really humble. I’ve guest-lectured for her, and I told her students ‘You have this really amazing professor.’ Later, she came to see me and said ‘Don’t tell my students so much about my work.'”

Mahan asked why.

“It intimidates them,” Bakermans said to Mahan.

“She doesn’t want students to think ‘Oh my gosh, I can’t talk to her.’ She’s accessible and a really good teacher,” Mahan said.

Mirror Staff Writer Russ O’Reilly is at 946-7435.