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They’re purple, mucky and harbor microscopic creepy crawly things. If you stepped on the surfaces, you’d disappear.
Submerged sinkholes on the bottom of Lake Huron are unattractive, inhospitable places. With rising methane gas bubbles stretching the muck into fingerlike spires, they look otherworldly.
Steve Nold, a biology professor at University of Wisconsin-Stout, thinks they’re beautiful. “It’s the coolest environment in the world,” Nold said.
What’s so cool? For example, researchers have found remnants of the human cold virus in the genome of the bacteria living there. The thick layer of carbon — about 50 feet deep — accumulating in the sinkholes dates to the last Ice Age.
In the last seven years, Nold, colleagues at two Michigan universities and their students have been studying the sinkholes and the living purple cyanobacteria mats that cover the sinkholes. How did it all form? What exactly is in there? How can we benefit from the research?
Their work recently gained a much wider audience. It was published on a website for Nature magazine, one of the leading national science publications. “Rock, Water, Microbes: Underwater Sinkholes in Lake Huron are Habitats for Ancient Microbial Life” can be found at The Nature Education Knowledge Project, http://www.nature.com/scitable.
The research has been summarized and reproduced for the masses. “We tried to make it approachable for everybody,” Nold said.
The article explains in layman’s terms many aspects of sinkholes, has photos and even has a glossary to define, for example, Karst formations.
The opening sentence says: “Time, water and geologic forces have converged to create underwater sinkholes where oxygen-poor and sulfur-rich groundwater support prolific microbial mats resembling life on early Earth.”
Nold and biologists from Grand Valley State University and the University of Michigan became involved with the research in 2005. Since then, approximately 80 of Nold’s students have done research via freshman biology and junior-level biotechnology classes.
“They collected gene sequences of cyanobacteria and made some of the first observations,” Nold said of his students.
Research on the purple cyanobacteria in Lake Huron indirectly led Nold and students to do ongoing research on cyanobacteria in Menomonie’s Lake Menomin.
“Students doing meaningful research lends authenticity to the classroom experience. Their levels of engagement go through the roof,” he said.
Nold has contributed to seven academic articles, some crediting the work of UW-Stout students, on the sinkholes over the years. Students also have gone to Lake Huron to collect samples.
The sinkholes were discovered in 2002 by the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration when divers were looking for shipwrecks. NOAA continues to lead research dives to the sites and collect samples for scientists.
While many sinkholes have been found in Lake Huron, three sites have been studied. The one most studied is about 70 feet below the surface and about two miles offshore from Alpena, Mich. The mat that covers the sinkhole is about the size of two football fields, Nold said.
Sinkholes aren’t known to exist in other Great Lakes but could because those lakes “have the same kind of rock structures,” Nold said.
Other known sinkholes are off the coasts of Belize and Mexico.
Researchers have just begun to scratch the surface of the sinkholes, Nold said. “There are medical applications that could come from this work. Doors need to be opened yet. It’s a fascinating habitat.
“We’ve made fundamental discoveries and are continuing to make fundamental discoveries. We’re seeking more funding from the National Science Foundation, and we’ll be back,” he said.