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Biologists study lake critters

July 26, 2004 Monday

The Deseret News Publishing Co.
Deseret Morning News (Salt Lake City)

BYLINE: Stephen Speckman Deseret Morning News

So, you've got your halophiles using their flagella to power themselves to the surface of the Great Salt Lake to catch a few rays on any given day.

No need for sunscreen, though, because these little fellas produce carotenoids to protect their DNA from the sun's harmful UV rays. It's those same kind of carotenoids that make sweet potatoes orange and tomatoes red.

On the saltier north side of the Great Salt Lake, halophiles -- organisms that live in salty places and come in a variety of shapes and sizes -- and their carotenoids are the reason the water there sometimes looks like pink lemonade.

That's just a layman's snippet of what Westminster College biology professor Bonnie Baxter, a few of her students and researchers from schools in Maryland and Virginia have discovered while sloshing around in the waters near the famed "Spiral Jetty" west of Promontory Peninsula.

Baxter has been studying the microbial diversity, along with halophiles, in that area off and on since 1998.

"There's just very, very little work done on the microbiology of the lake," she said. "Nobody has done a systematic study of the microbes that live in the lake."

Besides that, "I've fallen in love with this lake," Baxter said.

And so have some of her students.

Take Westminster junior Ashlee Allred, 20, a double major in biology and psychology. No, she's not interested in psychoanalyzing halophiles, but Allred is reveling in all this high-level, nationally recognized research.

"Most undergraduate schools don't let their students do this much research," Allred said.

The research she has done helped land her a scholarship from the prestigious Barry M. Goldwater Scholarship and Excellence in Education Foundation.

"I'm looking at solar-driven ion pumps," she says. Those are the parts of halophiles that help keep salt out of their teensy cells.

"It's kind of amazing that anything could live in that kind of salt concentration," Allred said.

In biological terms, the lake is known as a hypersaline ecosystem, the fourth largest of its kind in the world and the second-most saline on earth.

Because of a railroad causeway built across the lake in the 1950s and differences in the amount of fresh water flowing into each side, the north side or "arm" of the lake is now twice as saline as the south side. Organisms such as halophiles that live on the north side are considered highly adaptable, considering their living quarters.

Eventually, the goal is for Baxter and a consortium of researchers to create an observatory on the lake to find out what else besides brine shrimp and halophiles, which the shrimp like to eat, live on the north side.

The timing for creating an observatory coincides with the lake being at a 30-year low, which means saltier water and extreme or ideal conditions for looking at what can survive in that mix.

Baxter is already making links between the life that exists in the Great Salt Lake and the notion that microbes may have once lived in what are now evaporated lakes on Mars.

Closer to Earth, people are looking at carotenoid solutions as a possible antioxidant or a source to smear on human skin for protection from ultraviolet rays.

For Baxter, studying the micro-organisms in the Great Salt Lake's pink lemonade is about looking into what she calls the "foundation" of what sustains life in one very unique ecosystem. E-mail: