A collaborative grant has been awarded to Drs. William Henley and Robert Miller (Oklahoma State University), Mark Buchheim (University of Tulsa) and Mark Schneegurt (Wichita State University) to establish a Microbial Observatory at the Salt Plains National Wildlife Refuge in northern Oklahoma. The briny remains of an ancient sea that once covered middle America rise to the surface and evaporate under dry conditions to leave a crust of white salt on the barren, flat, 65-km2 Salt Plains. Rainfall events dissolve the salt crust and create temporary streams and ponds, altering the landscape. Salt conditions change rapidly in time with rainfall events and in space as the plains give way to vegetated areas. The rapidly changing conditions and high surface temperatures, salt concentrations and UV exposure make this an extreme environment. The Salt Plains Microbial Observatory will use a combination of classic microbiology techniques and leading-edge genetic techniques to characterize microbial communities (bacteria and algae) and study how they survive in such a harsh environment. It is expected that many novel microbes will be discovered, and a repository of microbial biodiversity will be established, along with Internet databases of genetic information. Educational opportunities will be available for undergraduate and graduate students, including a summer course for students from groups underrepresented in the sciences.
Capturing the biodiversity of this remarkable environment will preserve unique microbes that have beneficial properties for man, as potential sources for new antibiotics, drugs, and enzymes for industrial processes and 'green' chemistry. Fundamental ecological questions will be addressed that have widespread application to the management and conservation of our natural resources. Surviving under such harsh conditions, the microbes on the Salt Plains will serve as models for organisms that may be found on other planets. Representing the first extensive study of a non-marine, terrestrial, hypersaline environment, the Salt Plains Microbial Observatory is poised to make significant new discoveries.