A Finnish consortium aided by Rutgers has launched an $800,000, three-year project to mine the diverse, sturdy bacterial strains found in Finland’s arctic region.

Microbiologists suspect arctic Finland, a cold land of boreal forests and stark mountain tundra with long, dark winters, heavy snowfall and brief summers, may contain frozen biological bounty far more valuable than the region’s current money-maker, the Santa Claus tourist trade.

The group hopes to use the microbes’ cold-loving biochemical powers to develop industrial processes and products, and to build a regional biotech industry. The consortium also plans to develop ways the microbes can be used to biodegrade and clean up toxic organic contaminants in cold regions and help preserve fragile forest and tundra environments.

“There is tremendous metabolic activity in the bacterial world,” said Rutgers Professor of Microbiology Max Haggblom, leader of the Finnish research team that is prospecting for the organisms. “We don’t know what’s out there yet, and we know very little about how microorganisms function in the cold world.

“Scientists have explored less than one percent of the microbial diversity on earth, and probably a lot less than that in the earth’s cold regions,” continued Haggblom. “Researchers have cultivated only a small fraction of all microbes in laboratories because they can’t mimic the environment the microbes are growing in. We hope to expand our knowledge of microbial diversity and learn to cultivate new microbes.”

Earlier this year, Haggblom helped form the consortium comprising Rutgers, the University of Helsinki, the Finnish Forest Research Institute, and the Rovaniemi Regional Economic Development Agency, with funding from the Finnish Technology Agency (TEKES).

Rovaniemi, an industrial town and trade center of some 35,000 inhabitants on the Arctic Circle, is five miles south of “Santa’s home,” which has generated a thriving tourist industry and hundreds of thousands of letters each year to the local Santa.

More important to researchers, the area has an infrastructure of good roads, highways and a major airport rarely found in far-northern regions, making it easy for scientists to live and work there. Northern Finland also has research facilities operated by the University of Helsinki and the Finnish Forest Research Institute with forest ecology records dating back more than a century. “We thus have an excellent information resource on which to build using new methods for exploring microbial activities,” noted Haggblom.

Unlocking the secrets of the microbes’ unique cold-loving biochemical processes ñ their biological pathways, genes and enzymes ñ could lead to valuable industrial applications that don’t require heat, as well as improved ways to process foods, animal feed and other products, he said.

A principal target of the research will be new enzymes that can be used to catalyze chemical transformations leading to new or improved products.

“For example,” said the researcher, “many food and feed products would benefit from processing without heat, since heat encourages the growth of bacteria that break down and eventually spoil food. Cold processes can provide a better product with longer shelf life.”

Finding microbes that can degrade toxic organic contaminants like oil in cold regions is another goal. Cold regions are highly sensitive to pollution because contaminants are slow to degrade in the freezing temperatures, and these pollutants can do serious damage to forests and other natural assets” said Haggblom.

“In northern Finland, the soil temperatures rarely exceed 10 degrees centigrade and are frozen for six months of the year. So the time available for the biological microbes to degrade the pollutants is very short,” said the scientist.