Microbe hunting in icy Norway

Promising anticancer agent found in cave


Photo: Christian Nesset / A-Magasinet
Svarthammarhola ice cave is home to promising bacteria.

M. Michael Brady
Asker, Norway

Ever since the first one, penicillin, was discovered in 1928 by Scottish physician and scientist Alexander Fleming, antibiotics have become one of the wonders of modern medicine. In the 1950s through the 1970s, new classes of antibiotics were discovered, easing treatment of many diseases and enabling treatment of previously incurable ones. Then antibiotic discovery slowed, in part due to some bacteria evolving to become resistant to antibiotics.

That evolution happened because bacteria respond to conflict much as do humans, by waging war against the competition. The solution also has a human behavior parallel. New antibiotics might be found among strains of bacteria found elsewhere, away from the “war zone.”

Most of the antibiotics in use today come from microorganisms found in warm and temperate climates. So scientists have speculated that microorganisms found in cold climates may have properties amenable to producing new antibiotics. An opportunity to test that supposition appeared in 2003, when the University of Bergen initiated a comprehensive scientific examination of the Svarthammarhola ice cave at Fauske, the largest natural cave in Scandinavia.

Microbial ecologist Lise Øverås, a professor on the faculty of the University of Bergen, was among the experts involved. Her research team took ice core samples from a glacier that formed in the cave starting around 1200 CE. Laboratory analyses of the core samples found that they contained a hitherto unknown strain of bacteria in the planctomycetes category found in water. Ongoing scientific findings have shown that strains of the planctomycetes are potential sources of antibiotics. The question of whether the strains from Svarthammarhola are among them triggered research that led to a master’s degree thesis in mid-2018 and to a scientific journal article published in January this year. The answer is yes: anticancer active aquatic bacteria have been found in the Svarthammarhola ice cave. That news was made public by Aftenposten on Feb. 8 this year.

Further reading:

• “Mikrobejakten” (Microbe hunt) by Guri G. Oppegård, A-Magasinet, Feb. 8, 2019: www.aftenposten.no/amagasinet/i/e1nzGK/Her-lever-bakteriestammer-som-kan-utgjore-en-forskjell-pa-liv-og-dod–Men-naturens-skattekammere-er-i-ferd-med-a-smelte-bort (in Norwegian).

• “Anticancer Activity in Planctomycetes” by Rita Calisto et .al., Frontiers in Marine Science, Jan. 7, 2019: www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fmars.2018.00499/full.

• “Isolation and Characterization of Novel Planctomycetes from Svarthammarhola Ice Cave with Potential for Production of Bioactive Molecules,” by Erik F. Sæbø, University of Bergen, Department of Biology, Aug. 31, 2018: bora.uib.no/handle/1956/18350.

This article originally appeared in the February 22, 2019, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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M. Michael Brady

M. Michael Brady was born, raised, and educated as a scientist in the United States. After relocating to the Oslo area, he turned to writing and translating. In Norway, he is now classified as a bilingual dual national.