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Published: 2009-08-12 00:00:00

New research has uncovered microorganisms in the Taupo Volcanic Zone (TVZ) that haven’t been found anywhere else in the world.

The three-year study was carried out by GNS Science and catalogued microorganisms living in selected geothermal systems in the TVZ.

GNS scientist Matthew Stott presented the study’s findings to Environment Waikato’s environment committee meeting in Hamilton today.

Microorganisms are single-celled organisms so tiny you need a microscope to see them.  They make up 50 per cent of the world’s biomass and are vital to the healthy functioning of our planet.

Dr Stott said DNA sequencing work had revealed an “extraordinary diversity” of bacterial species in the geothermal systems, the function and role of many of which were unknown.

“Up until now the microbial diversity in geothermal systems in the Taupo Volcanic Zone has not been systematically catalogued,” Dr Stott said.

“This study has shown that New Zealand geothermal systems house an extraordinary population of unique and possibly globally rare microorganisms.  We’re still not sure whether this diversity relates to the uniqueness of New Zealand geothermal systems, or whether it’s because of the relative immaturity of the global understanding of microbial ecology science.

“Current estimates are that we only know of 5-10 per cent of the total microbial species on earth.”

Dr Stott said two highlights of the study were the discovery of a new microbial metabolism in a species isolated from a geothermal soil, and that scientists had managed to grow the first representative of a new phylum (taxonomic rank).

Some of the species found in the Taupo geothermal systems showed potential for use in new technologies.

“Geothermal microorganisms are an important repository of national and international biodiversity and many are being studied for medicinal and commercial applications, or are already being used for industrial processes,” he said.

“For example, the DNA identification technique used in forensic and other applications relies on a thermophilic (heat-loving) microorganism isolated from Yellowstone National Park, USA, and is a multi-billion dollar industry.”

Environment committee chair Jane Hennebry said knowing what microorganisms were present in Taupo’s geothermal systems would help the council with an ongoing project to prioritise ecosystems for biodiversity protection.

“Environment Waikato has a statutory responsibility to document the state of the environment and protect regional biodiversity,” she said.

“To do this for geothermal ecosystems we need to know about the range of microorganisms they contain.  We also need to know whether they are unique to New Zealand and if they are under threat, and what extra measures we need to take to protect them.”

The GNS Science study was principally funded by a $180,000 grant from the Wairakei Environmental Mitigation Charitable Trust.  Environment Waikato contributed $15,000 of one-off funding for a report that will help with its biodiversity protection work.