This story is part of The Salt Lake Tribune’s ongoing commitment to identify solutions to Utah’s biggest challenges through the work of the Innovation Lab.
Armed with paddle boards and tools to scoop up mud and other sediment, University of Utah professor Jaclyn Winter and the doctoral students in her lab venture onto the Great Salt Lake in the hope of finding life-saving medicines.
It’s not as simple as shoveling natural materials from the salty water into a prescription bottle at the pharmacy, but that’s where the research starts. The team brings the sediment back to the lab, processes it and puts it into petri dishes so Winter and her team can identify microorganisms -- particularly bacteria and fungi -- that could hold the keys to a new curative.
The study of pharmaceuticals from natural products isn’t new -- penicillin and other antibiotics are derived from living organisms -- but looking for products in the Great Salt Lake is, said Winter, a medicinal chemist.
“Natural products are a key cornerstone in drug development and drug discovery,” she said.
Many of the microorganisms are new discoveries, Winter said, and even if they are of the same species as other bacteria or fungi, they may have unique properties to help them thrive in the salty environment.
Since beginning its research on the lake in 2017, Winter’s lab has discovered new microorganisms with promising potential to help humans, including one type of bacteria that could be developed to treat drug-resistant strains of E. coli.
The researchers are looking at both the microorganisms and the chemicals they produce, Winter said. The materials are tested to see if they may destroy other germs. If they do, they could be harvested from nature, from microorganisms grown in a lab or the chemicals may be synthetically created to produce pharmaceuticals, Winter said.
There are other ways the lab can find uses of the microorganisms. Researchers can alter their genetic material to boost production of helpful chemicals, increase the effectiveness of the organism or reduce harmful side effects.
“Once we have that genetic material, we can tweak it,” Winter said.
The lab is looking at a variety of uses for these organisms. They could become medicines, they may be useful at containing heavy metals or toxins, or they may even be used in cosmetics.
“We’re looking at the Great Salt Lake and our research from a lot of different aspects,” Winter said.
Winter’s lab isn’t the only group of scientists looking at the Great Salt Lake. Westminster College’s Great Salt Lake Institute, founded in 2008, supports research and community engagement with the lake, even helping Winter’s lab navigate the lake when they collect sediment samples.
“We created this institute to kind of connect people to the lake through research and education,” institute coordinator Jaime Butler said.
The institute strives to understand the effects of the drying Great Salt Lake, Butler said.
The lake, which is environmentally and economically important to Utah, is shrinking quickly as water use on the Wasatch Front decreases flows into the lake and hotter temperatures cause more evaporation. Water levels on the southern portion of the lake in July dipped lower than they ever have since data collection began in 1875, and they’ve only gotten lower since.
A dried-up lake would have myriad consequences. Butler, a bird and insect researcher, said its habitat, which is the home of more than 380 bird species over the course of a year, would be lost. Heavy metals once trapped at the bottom of the lake could be blown up in windstorms, potentially poisoning residents.
The research done in Winter’s lab highlights another value of maintaining the lake by identifying the multitude of human benefits that can be derived from the lake.
There is hope, Butler said. Though serious conversations about water conservation should have begun years ago, she said, efforts among advocacy groups, businesses, researchers and government agencies are moving the needle to preserve the lake.
“We do have people that have been working on these issues for a long time,” Butler said. “We’re set up for success in Utah, as far as working together.”
Correction: 9:45 a.m. Nov. 3: This article has been updated to fully identify Great Salt Lake Institute coordinator Jaime Butler.