Vermont State University Awarded Over $3 Million To Study Arctic Microbes

Vermont Undergraduates and High School Students Will Assist in Research That Will Guide U.S. Decisions Amid Climate Change

Vermont State University announced that Associate Professor Ross Lieblappen will lead students in a ground-breaking study about microbes in the Arctic through a nearly $3.3 million dollar contract from a collection of federal funding sources, including the US Army Corps of Engineering. Lieblappen submitted a Broad Agency Announcement (BAA) proposal to fund, among other things, the purchase of x-ray imaging equipment that will allow him to study the effects of climate change on microbial environments and further U.S. leadership in knowledge of Arctic terrain.

“We’re trying to understand microbe communities in the Arctic, particularly as the Arctic is warming,” Lieblappen, who will serve as principal investigator on the project, said. “There are unanswered questions. We don’t know where each of these microbes are located, what their biological functions are or whether there is a difference in the environments in Greenland vs. Alaska vs. Canada. And with more melted permafrost, what is that going to do to those communities?” he posed.

He said the thing that excites him most about the funding he secured was the opportunities it provides for students. As the project continues, it will involve mostly undergraduate college students, but also some high school students, through a partnership with Lyndon Institute under the guidance of co-principal investigator (Co-Pi) Jill Nichols. Vermont State University Associate Professor Michelle Sama is also a Co-PI on the project, and will lead efforts in identifying particular microbes and ensuring the microbes are visible under X-ray imaging.

“Undergrads will be doing important parts of every step of this project—going into the field, going to Greenland, Alaska and Canada to collect permafrost and sea ice samples, transporting them back to the lab at a cold room facility at VTSU Randolph,” Lieblappen noted. “While the high school students won’t be making the trek to the Arctic, they will participate in the work here in Vermont—laboratory experiments to examine the effects of freeze-thaw cycles on the microstructure and location of microbial communities.

“Permafrost, winter sea ice and seasonal snow occupies an enormous amount of Earth’s land mass,” he explained. “These environments house a vast array of microbes, which we are going to study. Understanding them can help drive decisions like transport logistics, forecasts of ecosystem stability and the ability to respond to various threats. Also, we know that the most significant risks of climate change to North America include risks of degradation of marine, coastal and terrestrial ecosystems; reduced surface water available for agriculture and other human use; and risk to food and nutritional security through changes in agriculture, livestock, hunting, fisheries and aquaculture productivity. Arctic and sub-Arctic environments are at the forefront of these changes, as these environments are already experiencing warming at two to three times the global annual average,” he continued.

“We are incredibly proud of this award and the work that Professor Lieblappen and his students are leading in the arctic,” shared Nolan Atkins, Acting President of Vermont State University. “This work helps us better understand the impacts of climate change on the natural environment, including weather patterns and gives our students the opportunity of a lifetime to be part of groundbreaking global research.”

One key purchase with the funding will be what Lieblappen calls an Xray microscope, which can be used for multi-dimensional (3-D and 4-D) imaging. He stated that measuring devices he and his students previously had access to were not small enough for the “nano” scale needed for this research.

“Recent advances in imaging capabilities now allow for 3D imaging of individual microbes, but no one has yet used these advanced tools in the Arctic environments,” he related.

“Many people may be familiar with CT scans done on humans—sometimes referred to as CAT scans. This is a similar kind of measuring device, but for microbes” he noted. In the case of the machine used on humans, a narrow beam of rays surrounds the patient, who is motionless inside a unit that houses the device.

Lieblappen started work on the project in September. He hopes to be in the field during the summer of 2024.

The professor shared that the arctic is his favorite ecosystem and he is excited to do field work up there.

“It brings me back to my own time as a student, learning field teamwork skills within high winds and freezing temperatures,” he said.  “It’s not just learning to pull samples, but to do it when you feel like a mumbling, stumbling idiot in the freezing cold. I’m psyched to do that again with students. Then they will have time in the lab to extract microbes and learn about identifying microbes with state-of-the-art equipment.

“I’m also looking forward to taking students to national scientific conferences to present our results,” he added. “Providing students with hands-on, high-level scientific research experience is so valuable,” he stressed, “and I’m proud to be a part of it.”

Lieblappen is a member of the Science Department, teaching physics, chemistry, and environmental science. You can learn more about his work here. You can learn more about this particular study here.