GUEST: DR. ARIA HAHN, DR. CHRISTIAN RINKE
Repairing the Environment: Climate Special Part 2
With disappearing species, plastic-filled oceans, and environmental commitments lagging behind global targets, it’s easy to feel like humanity’s fate is already sealed. But can we ‘science’ our way out of it?
In this episode, Dr. Kaylee Byers meets up with Dr. Aria Hahn to discuss what she believes could be a handy tool to repair some of the damage that’s already been done to the planet. While becoming a scientist, she spotted the incredible potential of microbes, tiny organisms responsible for the foundations of life on earth. These tiny microbes have a large role to play in helping us create renewable resources and repair the areas devastated by our climate crisis. Second, we join microbiologist Dr. Christian Rinke whose relaxing sailboat getaway leads him to discover a wriggly solution to the world’s plastic pollution problem.
From insect guts to cold hydrothermal vents, the odd places on our planet hold critical answers, and may even shape our future on this spinning rock we call home.
Special thanks to the University of British Columbia students who shared their voices on this episode and scientist and diver Dale Anderson for sharing recordings from his adventures to Antarctica.
The minds of tomorrow share their thoughts on our climate crisis
Dr. Aria Hahn on the microscopic friends that could save the planet
Dr. Chris Rinke discovers 'super worms'. A solution to the plastic pollution problem
Dr. Kaylee Byers: This season, we’ve been talking a lot about climate change. Maybe you can tell that our little podcast team has it front of mind. But we also wanted to know how you’re thinking about these issues.
Jenny Cunningham: Okay. It is a windy day on campus. This is Jenny Cunningham.
Dr. Kaylee Byers: And to do that, producer Jenny Cunningham visited the University of British Columbia to ask an important question.
Jenny Cunningham: I’m going to go around and ask students how they feel about the climate crisis. Would you please share your name and what your feelings are about the climate crisis?
Adam: Hi, my name is Adam. When I think of climate change… Oh, man.Read Transcript
Dr. Kaylee Byers: As you can hear, it’s a big question, and the enormity of this collective global crisis can be even harder to reckon with.
Student 1: You get a lot of information saying that we’re already doomed and kind of making people feel loss of hope.
Student 2: I feel really sad thinking about the climate crisis because of all the consequences to people and animals and stuff.
Student 3: It feels like a very large problem that I, as one person, can’t do very much about it.
Dr. Kaylee Byers: But at the same time, there’s optimism.
Jenny Cunningham: You’re hopeful.
Student 4: I would say that I’m hopeful, and I’m not sure how human civilization will move forward, but I know that it will.
Adam: Governments, countries, and everybody as individuals all need to step up in order to fix it.
Dr. Kaylee Byers: There are so many actions that we can take, ranging from small steps.
Student 1: We can start backtracking; we can find new solutions to problems.
Dr. Kaylee Byers: To some suggestions that are more, let’s call them giant leaps for humankind.
Student 1: We’re able to do pretty crazy things, like go to space or build on the monumental scale.
Dr. Kaylee Byers: With so many potential paths, where should we go? How can we begin to repair what feels like it’s already broken?
Dr. Aria Hahn: Going to Mars and colonizing somewhere else, hill I will die on all day. That is not an option. It is a distraction and it’s working, and I think it’s a false flag. We waste time talking and money on trying to colonize Mars that we probably could have just electrified our grid and set ourselves up really well.
Dr. Kaylee Byers: You’re listening to Nice Genes!, where we peek into the world of genomics, sponsored by Genome British Columbia. I’m your host, Dr. Kaylee Byers, and though we’re definitely not going to Mars, this episode is going to be out of this world. This is part two of our look at the climate crisis, repairing the environment. Previously, we explored how scientists and researchers are looking to prepare the planet for a future facing more severe climate events. In today’s episode, we are looking at the impacts that people have already had on the environment and asking, can we fix it?
Dr. Aria Hahn: How’s it sound?
Dr. Kaylee Byers: You sound incredible. That’s Aria Hahn.
Dr. Aria Hahn: Thank you.
Dr. Kaylee Byers: She’s a scientist and the founder of Koonkie, a biotechnology research company.
Dr. Aria Hahn: It’s very niche. We work with the DNA data from microbial communities. We really like what we call weird and wonderful communities and places and how they interact with one another.
Dr. Kaylee Byers: Let’s come together on a very simple question. I’m sure you’ll have a very straightforward answer to… Can we solve climate change? What do you think?
Dr. Aria Hahn: I hope so. Yes, I think we can. Will is a different question, but I think we can. If we want to do it quickly and immediately and in big strokes, it has to be a fundamental shift in how we’re living. We have to do more things local. We can’t mass produce. We can’t get everything for the cheapest possible dollar, all the time, that breaks immediately. It’s just not going to work.
Cars are not the problem. Plastic bags are not the problem. The US military is a huge contributor to climate change. We don’t talk about that, but we put the personal responsibility on individuals. I don’t think that’s where it needs to be. I think it needs to be at these much broader scale things. Now, that’s probably unrealistic, so more likely, I think it’s going to have to be a collection of new technologies.
Not a single silver bullet, but reductions everywhere and a combination of these technologies so that we can keep a standard of living. Because I don’t want it to sound like “you have to give up everything”. Like no, you don’t, but maybe you have to give up owning 300 shirts instead of 30 shirts. There’s going to be some kind of balance there, but it’s not going to be this awful thing where you don’t have cars and you don’t get clothing and you can’t watch television and you can’t heat your home. No, that’s not what we’re talking about.
Dr. Kaylee Byers: While working in the world of genomics, Aria came across a fascinating realization about microbes.
Dr. Aria Hahn: I think they’re going to save us all. It’s probably hyperbole, but not. I went to university. I started in business and I hated a couple classes, so I switched over to the only science program that I could do, which happened to be renewable resources. Literally no better thought than that. I was 21. I was not ready to get a job at all, and I had a prof in soil science who said, “Hey, do you want to do a Masters?” And I was like, “Yeah, sure. More of school sounds fine and you’re going to pay me to do this? Great.” Now I don’t have to get a job. And I know how this life works and I’m pretty happy.
Microbes are, in a lot of ways, the stewards of Earth, of all life on the planet. They protect us. You have way more microbial cells than human cells. You have way more microbial genes than human genes, for sure. You only have 22,000 human genes. It’s not that many, so there’s lots of things you can’t even do as a functioning human without microbes.
They’re absolutely everywhere. Often, I think they get a bad rap. It’s like, “oh, they’re germs”. Most of them, you totally need them. They’re living on your skin and your skin would not function without them. All sorts of these things.
Even beyond us, microbes created the climate that allows us to live here. They control everything. They are the ones that are cycling nitrogen and carbon dioxide, and they’re transforming the elements that we’re using and everything that functions on this planet, you’ve got to run that through a microbe. They really are the creators of the world that we are able to inhabit.
Dr. Kaylee Byers: In your body, you have 10 times more microbial cells than human cells. Think about that for a second. So much of you is microbe. In the media, we often frame microbes as germs or bacteria that we should avoid.
Radio Host: Disease germs are dangerous because they make you sick if too many of them get inside of you.
Dr. Kaylee Byers: And even in our last episode on spotting diseases, we mentioned how ancient pathogens can be locked away in remote regions and that those microbes, well, they could have the potential to infect people, but there’s still very little we know about these little guys, and using advancements in genomic technology is revealing how certain microbes have enormous benefits. That’s why Aria believes that we should embrace them. Doing so may just be what we need to reverse some of the damage that’s already been done.
How can microbes then bring us into a healthier environment? Or how can we use them to create a healthier environment, given that we’re dealing with the impending-ness of climate change?
Dr. Aria Hahn: There’s a lot we know about them, but we are just scratching the surface. Every single sample we’re taking, we’re discovering novel species, novel genera, novel sometimes families. There’s a lot of discovery that needs to happen. And for a long time we thought, “Oh, there are limits to life,” and there are, but every time we’re looking for these limits to life and we’re doing this in Antarctica, we’re doing this in extreme places on Earth, cool environments, we’re like, “No, this is going to be dead.” There’s probably a microbe that lives there.
You can get microbes from basically anywhere from Antarctica, from Hawaiian lava tubes, from deep mines, from old rocks, from really hairy problems where the chemical load would suggest that this thing is so toxic, nothing lives there, but microbes do. I think we can start to put them to work. We already know of microbes that degrade hydrocarbons, so oil spills, gas spills. There are technologies we can use to enhance the activity of those microbes to degrade it more quickly and do that kind of cleanup work.
Forest fires are obviously a big deal in BC… California’s on fire. If we’re going to recover from that, I think that we’re going to need microbial support in regenerating those forests and getting that ground cover on there so that you don’t see what happened in BC last year…
News Anchor: The roots from these trees are supposed to hold the dirt in place.
Dr. Aria Hahn: Where you have this forest fire and then…
News Anchor: That layer of protection is removed, making major floods and mudslides more likely.
Dr. Aria Hahn: Because there’s no vegetation to hold that up anymore, and so we need to get that vegetation reestablished, keep that moisture in to prevent further drying, to prevent mudslides and all of those things. And plants on their own don’t do a lot, just like you on your own don’t do a lot. Not to pick on you Kaylee, but like, you know…
Dr. Kaylee Byers: No, it’s fair. No, you’re right.
Dr. Aria Hahn: You need this whole support team, and the microbes really are that support team. And so, I think there’s going to be technologies of quick vegetation where it’s like, “Yeah, that burnt down, we got to get stuff back on there so that we don’t have problems for the next 10 years.” Microbes are going to have to play a key part in things like that.
Dr. Kaylee Byers: Yeah, that’s really interesting. You’re really talking about how do we heal harms to the environment, and what role might microbes play? Go places that people can’t necessarily get with their… I don’t know how you clean up an oil spill, honestly.
Dr. Aria Hahn: Have you done those experiments as kids where you get this water dish and then they pour oil and they give you like Q- tips and it you’re trying to clean it up and you can’t do it? It’s like, “Yeah, what you need is a biofilm on there.”
Dr. Kaylee Byers: Right, right, right.
Dr. Aria Hahn: Yeah.
Dr. Kaylee Byers: When a bunch of microbes are all smushed together to the surface of this film.
Dr. Aria Hahn: Yeah, exactly.
Dr. Kaylee Byers: That’s the biofilm.
Dr. Aria Hahn: To just eat all of that and transform it, it’s the only way it’s going to work.
Dr. Kaylee Byers: Okay, well now I know.
Dr. Aria Hahn: In your dish, in your grade four science experiment.
Dr. Kaylee Byers: Yeah. Plaque on your teeth I think are also a biofilm. That’s nice and gross.
Dr. Aria Hahn: No, no, no. It’s super cool. I love gross things. Yes.
Dr. Kaylee Byers: Perfect. Didn’t you just love the stuff we learned when we were kids?
Dr. Aria Hahn: Captain Planet.
Dr. Kaylee Byers: Oh, yes! Big time. I wouldn’t miss it.
Captain Planet: The power is yours.
Dr. Kaylee Byers: If microbes hold a key to creating a more sustainable future, where might they be needed the most right now? If we picture what building a cleaner future looks like, it’s not quite the idyllic green landscape with little gadgets and gizmos cleaning up after us. The truth is, at least for the immediate future, it mostly sounds a little like this.
A sustainable future is shaping up to look a lot like how it does now. It’s loud, it’s busy. To make clean wind farms, we have to drill into the ground to erect towering structures to capture the breeze. To harness renewable energy, we dig deep and extract rare minerals that produce long- lasting batteries for cars and solar panels. These big projects aren’t likely to end in the immediate future. So, folks like Aria are putting microbes to work, helping mitigate the environmental disruption these activities cause, such as mining.
One area that you’ve done some work is in this mining space. You were talking about environmental harms. We often hear about mining runoff and the environmental harms that can do. What role do microbes play in the mining industry?
Dr. Aria Hahn: One of the things that’s super exciting about the mining industry is that they are investing a lot in microbial technologies right now because they feel like the chemical and physical solutions that they have, they’ve kind of limited out.
Microbes are on mines throughout the entire life cycle. There’s some early evidence actually that suggests that taking samples of rather surficial soils, so the top couple meters where you don’t need a big drill to get super deep, you could use a shovel, the microbes in there might actually be indicative of some of the minerals or value-add materials that are below.
And then as you go through the mining cycle, so yes, that you have a deposit of something of interest here, and so it’s either this open pit mine where you’re digging this big hole, or there’s these underground mines. Essentially, when you dig really big holes, we’re talking like kilometers deep, you’re exposing things that have not been exposed to oxygen or rain and water and all sorts of different elements in potentially millennia.
And so you get all of this new microbial activity where you might find that there’s natural amounts of selenium in a rock. It’s an element. And all of a sudden, you’re digging these big holes and you’re crushing these rocks, and so that rate of selenium leeching increases such that it becomes really toxic. Those processes can be slowed by microbes, or the microbes can be used to kind of transform that selenium into things that aren’t toxic and aren’t harmful before they hit waterways and affect wildlife and downstream life.
Dr. Kaylee Byers: So, I’m hearing sort of three pillars of where microbes might be involved. One is that it could actually help direct you to where you would dig, so you reduce excess digging in areas where you wouldn’t want to dig, otherwise.
Dr. Aria Hahn: Yes.
Dr. Kaylee Byers: You will learn new things about those microbes once you’ve uncovered them through these digs, and we might learn interesting things there. And then they can help mediate some of the potential harms that come with mining.
Dr. Aria Hahn: And they’re already used in a lot of wastewater treatment, [mine] tailings treatment. And then the last step, I guess, is mine closure. We’ve got everything out there. We’ve removed the immediate risks of selenium leeching in, or acid from the mines is one of the other big things we hear about a lot, and now we want to plant trees and get this habitat back to what it was before, and I think microbes are really essential in that reestablishment piece, as well.
Dr. Kaylee Byers: It’s converting the old into the new, the climate future of that space.
Dr. Aria Hahn: Yeah. This is where we should be using the word ‘terraforming’, not in the context of Mars, because again, hill I will die on. But in this idea of you’ve dug a big hole and you want a forest and deer and you know, everything, bugs living there again, microbes can help terraform in that sense.
Dr. Kaylee Byers: These tiny microbes could be huge healers of environmental harms. As Aria mentioned earlier, if we’re going to save the planet, it isn’t going to be a single silver bullet solution. So, what are some of the other weird and wonderful tactics wiggling around out there?
You’re listening to Nice Genes!, a podcast all about the fascinating world of genomics and the evolving science behind it. Brought to you by Genome British Columbia. I’m Dr. Kaylee Byers, your host, and we want to get more people listening to the genomic stories that are shaping our world, so if you like Nice Genes!, hit follow on Apple Podcast or wherever you get your shows. Help your inner microbiome flourish by spreading the microbe love with your friends.
Dr. Chris Rinke: Hi, Kaylee.
Dr. Kaylee Byers: How are you doing?
Dr. Chris Rinke: Good, good. Thanks for having me.
Dr. Kaylee Byers: That’s Chris Rinke. He’s a senior lecturer at the University of Queensland and…
Dr. Chris Rinke: I worked with microbial genomics, microbial ecology, and recently, my lab got really interested in the microbial plastic degradation.
Dr. Kaylee Byers: A while back, Chris and his wife were sailing the Pacific Ocean when they came across something that would put their lives on a different course,
Dr. Chris Rinke: My wife and I decided to take some time off. We had an old sailboat that we fixed up the years before, and we decided to sail to Mexico. We started from San Francisco, went under the Golden Gate Bridge, turned left, sailed to Mexico, kept going all the way across Pacific, and eventually ended up in Australia. But we could visit the beautiful places along the route, and one of them was in the Tuamotus, and that’s many corals atolls, many uninhabited islands. And we stayed on one of them for over a week. And it was beautiful, gorgeous, was pretty much like you would envision paradise.
But there was some plastic debris there, so we decided then, “Well, we should clean it up,” and we ended up with two large garbage bags full of plastic debris, plastic waste. And that was very concerning, because the island is uninhabited, and it’s about more than 2,000 kilometers away from mainland, but plastic still made it there. And when we then arrived in Australia, I wanted to look into that a little bit more. And being a microbiologist, it was the next step to see if we can do anything about microbes and research microbes that involve plastic degradation.
Dr. Kaylee Byers: Being an enterprising scientist, Chris took the path of so many scientists before. He looked at these plastics and asked a question. How can we deal with the issue of plastic pollution?
And what have you found to break down those plastics?
Dr. Chris Rinke: Yeah, quite a range. I think that the first large project was the ones where we used the ‘super worms’. They’re called super worms, that’s the common name, but they’re actually insect larvae. They have six legs like insects do, and they have very, very good mouth parts, so they’re able to chew through the plastic and we gave them a polystyrene, polystyrene foam. After a few hours, they were just exploring, and we had to leave them, so we went home, and at this point, we didn’t know if the super worms would eat the polystyrene and dig into it.
Came back the next day, and we went to the lab, we opened the boxes they’re in. We just hear this crackling sound, and see the worms eating their way into the polystyrene blocks. So that was, it was a great moment, definitely. Definitely a breakthrough moment, but we knew there was a lot of additional work ahead of us.
Based on our research, it seems that the super worms and the gut microbes work together to degrade the plastic. What we found is that the worms could survive on polystyrene, and surprisingly even gained a little bit of weight, and that told us that they’re able to get energy by eating polystyrene. We look into the guts and into the microbes that are in the guts, and it seems that some of those microbes indeed encode enzymes that are involved in the degradation of polystyrene.
What we did is we wanted to see if they can actually go through the whole life cycle. So, those are larvae of the darkling beetle, Zophobas morio, and we followed up on that after we fed the polystyrene to those quote, unquote, “worms,” and they could still then become pupae and turn into beetles.
Dr. Kaylee Byers: Can you take me through the origin story of how you got to these super worms? How did you determine that you were going to look at them in the first place? How did you do that research?
Dr. Chris Rinke: Yeah, that happened a few years ago, and I don’t know if your listeners are aware, but it was a paper originally about wax worms, and there was some evidence that wax worms could chew small holes into another plastic, polyethylene, and we looked at that and said, “Well, I think there’s more to it, and there must be other insect larvae that might also be able to degrade plastic.” And we didn’t know if it’s going to work when we started experiment, but we thought about the super worms, which you can get here in Australia. They’re mostly used for pet food, actually. If you have reptiles, that’s a very nutritious food. In other countries, they’re also used to human consumption, so it’s possible you can order chocolate covered super worms online.
Dr. Kaylee Byers: Yeah, I used to actually have a gecko and I would feed the gecko these super worms or a king worms I think was another name for another group of them. And at one point, I left them for too long and they did in fact move on to their next life stage.
Dr. Chris Rinke: Oh, okay.
Dr. Kaylee Byers: They were no longer worms.
Dr. Chris Rinke: Yeah, yeah, they tend to do that. They have a high fat content, also a protein content, so they are actually very healthy snack for animals and also humans, I guess.
Dr. Kaylee Byers: That’s right. Though technically dubbed super worms, these larval beetles are frequently found in pet stores where they’re a meal for pets, and sometimes, yes, they can even be fancied up with a little bit of chocolate as a tasty delicacy. These little guys are super helpful. Just think about all the holiday wrapping and plastics that could be chewed away each year, like helpful little festive wormy, elves.
Cartoon Voice: Happy Holidays, everyone.
Dr. Kaylee Byers: Could these insect larvae with their crunching mouth parts eat their way through the issue?
What kind of additional work were you already envisioning that you’d have to do?
Dr. Chris Rinke: What we did in our research is we inferred some enzymes in the microbes in the gut of the super worms, and we found some genes for enzymes that are involved in the degradation of polystyrene. But the next step is we have to verify the function, so there are probably more enzymes involved in it, and the best way to do this is to enrich all the microbes so we can have them in the lab, and then we can do a range of experiments. We can ‘silence’ and ‘knock out’ certain genes and see which genes encode which enzymes and which functions are those.
Dr. Kaylee Byers: Once you’ve identified those enzymes and their function, is it feasible that you could essentially sprinkle them all over a whole bunch of polystyrene? Could you get rid of the worm as the ‘middle worm’?
Dr. Chris Rinke: Yes, exactly. That’s exactly what we’re planning to do, because in theory, we could have gigantic worm farms, but I don’t think that scales very well.
Dr. Kaylee Byers: Worm farms do sound both incredible and terrifying.
Dr. Chris Rinke: Yeah, I can see that. But our goal is to really learn as much as we can from the system and then, as you said, create an artificial super worm, if you will. Grow the microbes to extract the enzymes and then, yes, if you will, sprinkle the enzymes or incubate the shredded plastic with the enzymes, and that way, we have way more control over the process.
Dr. Kaylee Byers: I’m imagining creating a compactor that is a super worm gut where those enzymes can survive.
Dr. Chris Rinke: Yeah, similar. Usually, we use big batch reactors where we have the exact optimal conditions, like the right temperature, the right pH for those enzymes to work, and that way we can really control the process much better than in a super worm in an animal. I think those are really interesting systems to study, and we are definitely going to do that to also have a few other insect species in our lab and see what they can degrade. And then again, the long-term goal would be to use all the knowledge and then have an artificial system where we can incorporate everything, we learned from those insect larvae.
Dr. Kaylee Byers: Chris and his colleagues can scale up the ability to break down harmful pollutants by zooming down into the gut of larvae with a genomics lens. Because Chris has spent a lot of time thinking about how to remedy some of the wrongs we’ve inflicted through plastic pollution, I was also curious about his view of the climate crisis. Does this research make him optimistic?
And when we sort of think of scale and scope, I’d love to take a step back and ask you about the scope of this issue. What are we currently facing when it comes to plastics and these forever chemicals in our environment?
Dr. Chris Rinke: Yeah, it’s pretty sad if you think about it. We are producing a lot of plastic, and the latest statistics say it’s about 350 million tons of plastic a year, in a single year, and even more depressing is if you look at the plastic production over the last decade, it’s going up, up, up. There are predictions that by the year 2050, worldwide, we are producing about a billion tons of plastic in a single year. So that’s a really, really large number.
And the problem is that plastic recycling is really lagging behind, and if you look at the percentage, actually, the percentage of plastic recycling is going down because we are not recycling much more, but the production increases like crazy. So, it’s definitely a big issue, and yes, coming back to what we said at the beginning, a lot of those plastic goes into landfills, or it escapes into the environment, goes into rivers, and then sadly enough, ends up in the ocean at some point.
Dr. Kaylee Byers: What is the life cycle of plastics in our environment? What happens to them?
Dr. Chris Rinke: What usually happens is the plastic that escapes in the environment, it can escape from landfills or because it’s just thrown out, usually most of it ends up in rivers, and then eventually in the ocean. And plastic does break down. Big pieces break apart within a few years, but then we have a lot of microplastics in the ocean that stays there for a long time. And some of that, there’s some studies out there showing that it might sink to the bottom of the ocean, and it obviously is washed up on beaches on islands. That’s why we have plastic pretty much everywhere. It’s very recalcitrant to degradation in the environment.
A lot of the plastic, unfortunately, is single use plastic, and I think that’s probably the craziest part of it all. You produce plastic from petroleum, you use it once, and then it goes already to waste. That is probably the most wasteful part. There are other plastics that are used a bit longer, but they also become plastic waste eventually. So, I don’t know about Canada, but Australia, for example, is doing not very well. We recover only about less than 12% of our plastic, so there’s a lot of work to do.
Dr. Kaylee Byers: What do you think is the biggest threat we face to preserving this planet that we have? With all the threats that we’re facing, what do you think is the biggest one?
Dr. Chris Rinke: I would say it’s probably climate change, that’s going to have a really, really huge impact on all of us on our planet. And some of those problems that we face, those man-made problems are connected, more or less, because even if you go back to the plastic problem, we have a lot of oil reserves, we take those, we use them to make plastic, single use, some of that is burned, turns into CO2, not very good, also. A lot of that goes into the environment. I think we have to probably rethink a lot of our strategies, and our use of plastic is probably one of them, and that relates to climate change, which is probably one of the biggest issue there is right now.
Dr. Kaylee Byers: And I know you touched on it earlier, but when we’re thinking about the use of these worms, we’re not saying we are going to release millions of these insect larvae into the environment. We’re talking about using them in a closed system where you’re harnessing these enzymes that they have in their guts. Is that correct?
Dr. Chris Rinke: Yeah, yeah, yeah, that’s correct. No, we don’t want to release any larvae into environment. It’s all in a closed system.
Dr. Kaylee Byers: We won’t end up with any Tremors like situation where the worms have…
Fred Ward: Must be a million of them.
Dr. Kaylee Byers: You know, they’re like sand worms now.
Dr. Chris Rinke: No, no, no, no, no. Nothing like that. Here in Australia, we have a lot of those ice boxes, they’re made out of polystyrene, and people were afraid, “Oh, the worms are going to eat them.” No, no, no, we have the worms in here in the lab, and that’s where they are, and there are no plans to release any worms or microbes, so there’s no danger of that.
Dr. Kaylee Byers: What I love about this story is how hope can be found in really unexpected places, including in the gut of a beetle larva. If that’s any indication, the odd spaces where microbes can be found can sometimes be hard to get to. In fact, you may even have to dive into unchartered territory.
Dr. Dale Andersen: Here we go, here we go.
Dr. Kaylee Byers: The diver you’re hearing is Dale Andersen. He works with Aria to find microbes we are less familiar with.
Dr. Aria Hahn: Dale Andersen is an exceptional scientist. He has done a lot of the pioneering work in Antarctica. What you heard is, Antarctica’s hard to get to, so you really need to take these helicopters in and land, and then you want to dive and sample things in the water, so there’s all these big stromatolites and growths in these largely closed systems that are capped with ice, and so what you hear is them diving under the ice in these really frigid conditions and then collecting those samples.
Dr. Kaylee Byers: By diving down into these icy waters, Dale is unlocking century old secrets about our natural world, secrets that could be the key to knowing more about our planet’s past and future.
Is Dale down there collecting microbes?
Dr. Aria Hahn: Yeah, absolutely. He’s collecting water samples, and then we would look at the microbes within that. He’ll collect them from different depths, sediment at the bottom of these lakes, and so we talk a lot about… Well, depends I guess on who your dinner guests are… In my world we talk a lot about these biobanks. So, going to these places where it’s this sediment that that has been undisturbed for so long and it’s a closed system and collecting microbes from there is really this historical bank of microbes and DNA and history that we can learn a lot from. A lot about ourselves and this planet and changes this planet has gone through and how quickly those changes happened and what we might be able to do to slow those changes such that it’s not so painful for us to be a part of them.
Dr. Kaylee Byers: How do these microbes survive in these extreme environments?
Dr. Aria Hahn: One of the things I think to first put into context is that life and death with microbes, this is now getting philosophical. We’re going from gross to philosophical. But life and death, there are microbes that can be dormant and completely inactive, and they haven’t done anything, they are essentially dead, until thousands or tens of thousands or longer of years later, you bring them up to the surface or to an environment where they’re able to kind of Frankenstein’s monster. They come back. You can create these fat layers that don’t freeze at these temperatures to protect the insides of that cell from freezing.
Dr. Kaylee Byers: We dive down, we get really chilly for a bit, and we bring these microbes to the surface. What do we learn from them?
Dr. Aria Hahn: We learn about the bounds of life on this planet. And as we get more extreme, because one of the things with global warming, yes, the average temperature overall increases, but you also get these more extremes in weather, so colder colds and hotter hots, and we’re using this type of information to understand what are the true limits of life on this planet? And then what can we learn from that in terms of strategies, metabolisms and technologies that we might want to create and adapt so that we’re more comfortable and can survive on the planet?
Dr. Kaylee Byers: Yeah, right. How do we use them before we get to our limit essentially?
Dr. Aria Hahn: Exactly, exactly. Because we have those trillions of cells and we have really strict limits and microbes don’t, and so we want to look at them and say, “Okay, what are the bounds? What are the hottest hots and coldest colds that life can live on?”
Dr. Kaylee Byers: What do you envision, then, for using microbes to both prepare for the climate future and repair what’s already happened?
Dr. Aria Hahn: I would love to see microbial standards for reclamation. So, where like… where you know, it doesn’t… what are… We want the right microbes to be in the environment, because we know if those are there, everything else will get taken care of. They’re this base fundamental level of ecosystem, and if we can start to get those in place, the trees and the birds and the bugs and the fruit will grow, right? That’s fine. I think we’re often trying to take this top-down approach instead of establish this as the fundamental layer. We would love to see microbes normalized in that way where we’re using them foundationally.
Dr. Kaylee Byers: It sounds like including them as part of biodiversity estimates. When you go into a habitat and look at what’s there, you’re actually also looking at the things you can’t see.
Dr. Aria Hahn: Yes, let’s look at those. I think that there’s probably, what we’re going to see as microbes being productized where it’s like, “Oh, this is an alternative to fossil fuel-based fertilizers.” We need that, so we’re going to have to find solutions, that I think are probably microbial based, to start to enhance crops and plants to start to improve yields, decrease pests and other viruses.
I hope that we’re getting to the place on mine sites where we’re able to get more things extracted, so we’ve tapped out a lot of high quality deposits where it’s really easy to get the gold out or the copper out or whatever it is, and now we’re in these lower quality deposits where it’s trickier, it’s mixed in with things, and I think microbes are going to help us get that out. We need to get those metals out because we need to be able to electrify the grid. We need batteries, we need wind power. We’re going to need a combination of these things and we can’t do them without microbes.
I’m hoping to see microbes really inserted in all of these places. You’re going to get a microbial test for your health. We’re going to do microbial test to figure out what should be built here and when and where crops should be rotated. And my dream would be that we see microbes everywhere. It’s like super normal.
Dr. Kaylee Byers: Aria, it’s been an absolute delight to geek out with you on the gross and the philosophical. Thanks so much for taking the time to chat today.
Dr. Aria Hahn: Super fun. Thanks for having me.
Dr. Kaylee Byers: Climate change isn’t the cheeriest topic. Its enormity and pervasiveness can be overwhelming, but there are lots of people and critters doing amazing work to help fight this crisis. Super worms and microbes are only a few of the ‘out of the box’ examples of how we can repair some of what has already been broken. Obviously, the answer to the question, “Can we save our planet?” isn’t a straightforward one. The planet’s not going anywhere. I mean, well, until the Sun swallows it. But our actions are going to determine what our future world will look like.
As we heard from Aria and Chris, preserving the species and environments we have today is going to take a multifaceted approach from economies and scientific advancements around the world. There is no one single solution, but lots of actions. We can all lessen our carbon footprint, but big change also needs to happen higher up, from the entities of power who make big decisions, and I’m not just talking about deciding to go to Mars.
My guests for today have been [Dr.] Aria Hahn, CEO and founder of Koonkie, and Dr. Chris Rinke from the University of Queensland. Also, a special thanks to [Dr.] Dale Anderson for capturing a few of the sounds of their incredible work. And finally, thank you to all the folks who contributed their voices on this episode and shared their thoughts on our climate future.
You’ve been listening to Nice Genes!, a podcast brought to you by Genome British Columbia. If you liked this episode, go check out some of our previous ones wherever you listen from, and share this ear worm with your friends. You can also DM the show on Twitter by going to @GenomeBC. We also have Learn-a-long activity sheets added to the show description.
That’s it for season two of Nice Genes! I want to thank all of the people who shared their stories with us this season.
Dr Jennifer Allen: All right, I’m ready to go.
Dr. Melandri Vlok: Having these really strong connections that humans also have had for thousands of years with each other actually do have an environmental impact.
Dr. Ben Williams: Number one thing we need to do is tackle climate change.
Jennifer Walkus: Who better to see what are the facts than the people who live out here?
Dr. Aria Hahn: It has to be a fundamental shift in how we’re living.
Dr. Kaylee Byers: (Speaks in Swedish).
Dr. Birgitta Evengard: (Replies in Swedish) you’re speaking Swedish.
Dr. Travis Park: It’s one of the most spectacular stories in all of evolution. Obviously, I’m biased.
Dr. Chris Rinke: We definitely have our work cut out for us, but we are very excited doing those next steps.
Dr. Axel Newton: The boundaries that we are pushing are going to have an enormous benefit to society as a whole. I really truly believe that.
Dr. Christine Wilkinson: I already have some thoughts.
Dr. Kaylee Byers: Yeah.
Dr. Christine Wilkinson: You can stop me if I shouldn’t have these thoughts right now.
Dr. Kaylee Byers: No, you should have thoughts.
Dr. David Paetkau: Yeah, I get out a coffee and ponder, what does this all mean?
Joshua Zeman: We would’ve never known that there were these hybrids out there we if didn’t ask and we weren’t curious.
Dr. Carolyn Hogg: Think about what we would able to do and what we could achieve if we had that kind of knowledge for everything.
Dr. Shayle Matsuda: Really knowing that there’s a real chance to make an impact right now was the thing that tied it all together for me.
Dr. Kaylee Byers: Thank you for working to build a more sustainable future. And very importantly, I want to thank the team behind Nice Genes!. Our producers are Sean Holden and Phoebe Melvin. For sound design and our audio technician, Patrick Emile. Project lead is Mandy Elkoreh. Marketing is Matthew Stevens and Marjorie Henderson. Audience growth is Kristi Bolton. Our interns this season are Jenny Cunningham and Ollie Nicholas. And our chief creative officer is Jen Moss.
And of course, thank you for listening. We really appreciate you joining us on this genomic journey, so here’s our final audio applause to cell-ebrate you. And hey, if you’ve enjoyed the stories we’ve shared with you so far, leave us a review. Like, share, all that fun stuff, wherever you listen from. It actually goes a long way in helping us continue this podcast. For now, thanks for listening.
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