"Bacteria and their viruses (called bacteriophages, or phages), have been found in virtually every ecological niche on Earth. Arid regions, including their most extreme form called deserts, represent the single largest ecosystem type on the Earth's terrestrial surface. The Namib desert is believed to be the oldest (80 million years) desert. We report here an initial analysis of bacteriophages isolated from the Namib desert using a combination of electron microscopy and genomic approaches. The virus-like particles observed by electron microscopy revealed 20 seemingly different phage-like morphologies and sizes belonging to the Myoviridae and Siphoviridae families of tailed phages. Pulsed-field gel electrophoresis revealed a majority of phage genomes of 55-65 kb in length, with genomes of approximately 200, 300, and 350 kb also observable. Sample sequencing of cloned phage DNA fragments revealed that approximately 50% appeared to be of bacterial origin. Of the remaining DNA sequences, approximately 50% displayed no significant match to any sequence in the databases. The majority of the 16S rDNA sequences amplified from DNA extracted from the sand displayed considerable (94-98%) homology to members of the Firmicutes, and in particular to members of the genus Bacillus, though members of the Bacteroidetes, Planctomycetes, Chloroflexi, and delta-Proteobacteria groups were also observed."
This serves as a neat, if slightly dated, little introduction to my latest endeavour - and an account of a field trip this last week into the Namib Desert.
I was fortunate enough some time ago to have been invited by Don Cowan, presently of University of Pretoria, to accompany his team to the Gobabeb Research Station inland of Walvis Bay, in Namibia's Namib Desert. They work on extremophiles, and the Namib is a great environment for mining bugs that can withstand high salt and temperatures and severe desiccation - oh, and photosynthesise underground, hiding under semi-tranlucent quartz rocks embedded in the surface soil. The thinking was that, given my long-time interest in viral diversity and newly-acquired means to do oceanic viromics, I would be interested and even of some help.
And so it has come to pass: I will have my very own hypolith (=rock-colonising blue-green algae) scrapings and the result of diafiltration and concentration of washings of a good few kilos of red dune sand to play with as far as virus genome sequencing and even EM and analytical centrifugation go.
We will have fun in the coming months...that, and we will obviously HAVE to go back to Gobabeb, to further investigate whatever it is we find. A terrible, harsh place, but SOMEONE has to go there...so I'll take the pain. B-)
Phage graphic courtesy of Russell Kightley Media