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Mystery Solved

Bacteria use cool trick to make ice

Microbes sort water molecules into heat-sapping formation

By
2:00pm, April 22, 2016
artificial snow on a ski slope

ICE, ICE BABY  Pseudomonas syringae bacteria can freeze water at above-freezing temperatures, so they’re often used to help make artificial snow for ski slopes. 

Scientists have discovered how one microbe plays it cool.

Until now, it was a mystery how Pseudomonas syringae bacteria turn water into ice at temperatures above a normal freezing point. P. syringae pulls off its cool trick by rearranging nearby water molecules, researchers in the United States and Germany report online April 22 in Science Advances. This chill ability makes the microbes useful in making artificial snow at ski resorts.

Researchers knew that a particular protein on the microbes’ membranes was somehow responsible for making ice form. The team found that this ice nucleation protein, inaZ, acts as a mold for ice crystals. Alternating water-repelling and water-attracting parts of the protein tug nearby water molecules into an orderly, icelike arrangement. Once arranged into an ice-promoting formation, water molecules can quickly disperse heat energy.

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