Juneau, Alaska (KINY) - University of Alaska Southeast assistant professor Konrad Meister has been awarded a three-year grant from the National Science Foundation to understand more about the properties of cold-adapted fungi forming ice at warmer temperatures.
Dr. Meister joined UAS in January of 2020 and is originally from Germany, he holds a Ph.D. in physical chemistry as well as BS and MS degrees in biochemistry. Following work in Antarctica, an opportunity arose to for him to work at the University of Alaska. He said he is very intrigued by the chemistry and biochemistry of how animals adapt to cold conditions. He is interested in is the biomolecules of organisms, how they work, and how they can be harnessed for biomedicine.
Dr. Meister said he originally looked at organisms that prevent or stop ice from growing, but this work has brought him to understand fungi ice creation. He was asked how this was discovered "A pretty interesting discovery because that comes from the atmospheric science because people have found that in the clouds and if we, for instance, look at snow and rainwater, a lot of time there are bacteria and fungi in it. So the idea was that maybe those fungi or those bacteria can actually help to make ice."
Water can be supercooled to as low as -40 degrees before ice forms, but cold-adapted fungi allow the formation of ice at much warmer temperatures, so Meister is tasked with why that is. "What I'm very good at is now figuring out what part of the fungi is responsible for it. So what protein or what tiny molecule is responsible for it because that is very important. If we understand that, then we can start copying that strategy and make artificial materials that are much much better and in forming ice and thereby helping us save a lot of energy," he said.
One application for this fungus could be snowmaking. He used an example from Germany, and that folks want to go skiing but there is low snow in the Alps; "So in those artificial snow cannons, they actually feed them with freeze-dried bacteria or freeze-dried fungi that are then making the ice much faster, and so you can basically produce snow much better." Another use could be to improve the cold transportation of medicines, like the COVID vaccines. He pointed out that when COVID vaccines are being shipped they need to be at very low temperatures like -80 degrees, which he said is very difficult because not everyone has those super cold freezers, "if you think about it, now you will have a compound that is very good at making ice already at a warmer temperature which means, this whole cold chain process could be optimized." He added that it is a very interesting idea to be used in the transport of biomedical, or some pharmaceuticals.
Meister and UAS will be collaborating with Baylor University in Texas, and with the awarded funding, opportunities for students will open up. He said that Baylor University has a big medical school program, as well as a much much bigger facility. He detailed what Baylor will be contributing and what UAS will do, "So what we'll have is and on the Baylor side of Baylor University there will be graduate students working on the project, and then we also have the funds available to send a few students from Juneau to Texas and hopefully also host some students from Texas."
He also said that there are positions open to work with him and that anyone interested in fungi can reach out to him.
Meister pointed toward an informative Youtube video that helps explains the importance of the topic “How Mushrooms Make It Rain.”
University of Alaska Southeast Assistant Professor Konrad Meister. (Photo Courtesy of UAS)