Most microbiologists spend their days in a lab, but Donato Giovannelli is more often found next to a geyser, climbing a volcano or deep-sea diving. Currently an assistant professor at the University of Naples ‘Federico II’, he specialises in studying life in extreme environments, and is also an affiliated scientist at the Earth-Life Science Institute in Tokyo and a Visiting Associate Research Professor at Rutgers University in the US. With his collaborators in Naples, he is launching the first graduate programme in Europe on the biology of extreme environments. He spoke to Nature Italy after a research trip to Svalbard, and we asked him why young scientists should consider specialising in this field.
How did the idea of a curriculum on extreme environments come to you?
A lot of our technology has its roots in our planet’s extreme environments. Many rare elements used by our phones and electronics are mined from hydrothermal deposits, and they are becoming increasingly important for energy storage too. A lot of our biomedical research, including COVID tests based on PCR, would be impossible without the taq polymerase, an enzyme isolated from an extremophilic bacterium discovered in the Yellowstone National Park in the 1950s. Our search for life in the universe has been strongly influenced by our knowledge of life in extreme environments. And yet the study of their biology is still a niche venture. They are the largest untapped resources of genetic and biochemical diversity. They might hold cures for diseases, or the next biotechnological solution for a greener economy, provide resources to our economies, but we need to find sustainable ways to exploit them. They will provide testing grounds for the colonization of space. We don’t know how the future will be, but extreme environments will play a growing role in it.
When you refer to extreme environments you mean terrestrial, extra-terrestrial, or both?
Definitely both. Earth-based extreme environments contribute significantly to the functioning of our planet through element cycling, they resemble the conditions found on the Earth in its early stages, and provide clues on life's emergence and evolution. At the same time, the Earth's extreme environments can be analogs to prepare for the environments that we will encounter while exploring space.
Are extreme environments also important for astrobiology?
Astrobiology is the study of the origin, evolution and presence of life in the Universe, including Earth. Given the evolutionary history of our planet, which has been a completely anoxic, hellish place for a large portion of its 4.5 billion years of history, extreme environments provide a window into the past and, with some caveats, give information on the co-evolution of life and our planet. NASA, ESA and all other major space agencies use extreme environments as natural test laboratories for space exploration technologies and astronaut training. In a nutshell, extreme environments are de facto at the centre of astrobiology.
What will students do at your programme at Università Federico II?
We have carefully planned the new degree to meet what we anticipate will be a growing demand of expertise. The master’s will be in English, and it is organized in two curricula, overlapping in a few fundamental courses. The first one is on biological resources, and is tailored to fill the knowledge gap that exists on the sustainable exploitation of resources from extreme environments. Think, for example, of the biotechnological applications of extremophilic enzymes, or the impacts of deep-sea mining. The second curriculum, on astrobiology, is focused on the growing needs of the space economy. We are quickly moving from a robotic-based exploration of space to a more human-driven phase, and the challenges associated with the human colonization of space are manifold. There are universities that provide some courses on the subject, but this is the first master’s programme dedicated to the biology of extreme environments in Europe. We believe others will follow. We are at a similar point in time like we were for marine biology 15 or 20 years ago, when concerns over the sustainable management of the oceans were growing.
Historically, Naples has played a key role in the study of life in extreme environments, and its terroir is primed for it. Due to its proximity to major volcanoes such as Vesuvius and Campi Flegrei, it has unique access to relevant ecosystems. Italy overall has an impressive diversity of extreme environments, many of which have been understudied.