Do you want to build a snowman? Developing and optimizing a qPCR assay to detect ice-nucleating activity


Over the last few months we have published several blogs about qPCR—from basic pointers on avoiding contamination in these sensitive reactions to a collection of tips for successful qPCR. Today we look in depth at a paper that describes the design and and optimization of a qPCR assay, and in keeping with the season of winter in the Northern hemisphere, it is only fitting that the assay tests for the abundance and identity of ice-nucleating bacteria.

Ice-nucleating bacteria are gram-negative bacteria that occur in the environment and are able to “catalyze” the formation ice crystals at warmer temperatures because of the expression of specific, ice-nucleating proteins on their outer membrane. Ice-nucleating bacteria are found in abundance on crop plants, especially grains, and are estimated to cause one-billion dollars in crop damage from frost in the United States alone.

In addition to their abundance on crop plants, ice-nucleating bacteria are also found on natural vegetation and have been isolated from soil, snow, hail, cloud water, in the air above crops under dry conditions and during rain fall. They have even been isolated from soil, seedlings and snow in remote locations in Antarctica. For the bacteria, ice nucleation may be a method to promote dissemination through rain and snow.

Although ice-nucleating bacteria have been isolated from clouds, ice and rain, little is known about their true contribution to precipitation or other events such as glaciation. Are such bacteria the only source of warm-temperature (above temperatures at which ice crystals form without a catalyst) ice nucleation? Can they trigger precipitation directly? What are the factors that trigger their release from vegetation into the atmosphere? Can we determine their abundance and variety in the environment?

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