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Molecular Biology

SFAR in the service of scientific research

Excerpt from: Swiss Foundation for Alpine Research, 1939 to 1970. Published in Zurich in 1972

An outsider might well have trouble discerning a connection between the modern laboratory science of molecular biology and the Foundation for Alpine Research. And yet, the history of one research project at the Molecular Biology Institute at the ETH in Zurich fits in with the particular working style of the Foundation better than practically any other project.


It has long been recognised that primitive life forms able to withstand high temperatures exist in the hot springs of Iceland. This old discovery suddenly became topical again when the progress in space flight caused us to reconsider the beginnings of life on our planet.


We all know that milk keeps longer if it has been pasteurised, because a short period of heating kills off the lactic acid bacteria. Biochemists have discovered that most protein-containing enzymes are destroyed when they are heated above 50 degrees. Thermoresistant bacteria and blue algae, which withstand temperatures of over 60 degrees, therefore presumably contain unknown metabolic enzymes. At the suggestion of Prof. Herbert Zuber from the Molecular Biology Institute at the ETH, the Foundation for Alpine Research equipped a small expedition to collect heat-resistant life forms from Iceland’s hot springs. In the spring of 1969, the two students Peter Locher and Andres Binder drove to Copenhagen in a LandRover fitted out as a field laboratory. They then caught the ferry to Reykjavik and set up their tents by the Icelandic capital city’s hot springs.


The physical, chemical and micro-biological investigations of the springs, in conjunction with the measurement and mapping of their location, turned out to be a rich source of information during the course of the summer of 1969. The value of this material lay primarily in the direct comparability of the individual results.


A whole series of different types of life forms were found in the hot springs. The main interest of the young researchers was sparked by blue algae that appeared in a vast quantity. In certain springs, this existed practically as a pure culture. Following the success of preliminary on-site trials, they constructed a breeding station in order to obtain as much algal material as possible for biochemical laboratory investigations. This station continued to be operated by an Icelandic resident after the students’ departure, and cultures of blue algae were regularly despatched in kilogram quantities by airmail to Switzerland.


In the spring of 1970, students Andres Binder and Peter Locher returned briefly to Iceland in order to re-start the algae breeding programme after a winter break, and to carry out some supplementary investigations. The organisation and equipping of the reconnaissance expedition marked the beginning of a wide-ranging biochemical and molecular biology research programme.


Swiss Foundation for Alpine Research . Schweizerische Stiftung für Alpine Forschung . Fondation Suisse pour Recherches Alpines . Fondazione Svizzera per Ricerche Alpine