Skip to main content

Meister receives NSF CAREER award to study ice-nucleating bacteria

man interacts with giant wall touch screen
Konrad Meister views protein structures as the Stein Luminary BASH event, Nov 17, 2024. Photo by Sean Evans

Pop quiz: how cold does water need to be to freeze and turn to snow or ice? If your answer is 32 degrees Fahrenheit, or 0 degrees Celsius, you might be surprised to learn that pure water often supercools and only freezes at much lower temperatures, around -40 degrees Celsius.

It is only through impurities and particles that act as ice nucleators–like dust particles–that we  can observe higher freezing temperatures in our everyday lives. Ice nucleators are specialized biological substances that are particularly efficient in enabling ice formation, but their working mechanisms are not well understood.

Though biological ice nucleators are not a new discovery, understanding how they work is a different story. That’s why Assistant Professor of Chemistry Konrad Meister has been selected to receive a five year National Science Foundation CAREER award of more than $740,000 to pioneer research into why biological ice nucleators are so good at controlling ice formation.

“My research starts by looking at how nature survives in the cold,” Meister said. “You have all these little fish, insects, bacteria, fungi, and they basically make their own unique molecular antifreeze that helps them survive. But you also have organisms that are freeze-tolerant and want to be frozen–and they achieve that by making their own potent ice-making proteins.”

With this award, Meister will study microbes that have the ability to make ice-making proteins. Why? Because making ice is more important than you might think.

Water and ice are essential in shaping Earth’s geology, atmosphere and sustaining life. By causing the water in clouds to freeze at higher temperatures, ice nucleators initiate the hydrological cycle and ultimately drop precipitation on a world that is increasingly getting hotter and drier due to climate change. Understanding how ice nucleators control ice formation is critical for climate models, weather prediction and decision-making in landscape design and agriculture.

With this award, Meister will be able to further the research into understanding the molecular mechanisms behind biological ice nucleation, and financially support student researchers from rural areas participating in the project. The award will be used to help rural communities develop environmentally friendly capacities to better predict, navigate and mitigate ice-associated challenges in a changing world.

“NSF CAREER awards recognize the valuable contributions early-career scientists make to the body of knowledge and experience built by their respective fields,” said Provost and Vice President of Academic Affairs John Buckwalter. “Dr. Meister’s work to better understand biological proteins in ice formation will impact the ways in which we respond to climate change, and this project will give our students access to inspirational, cutting edge research that will influence their own career aspirations. This is an excellent example of the research Boise State supports to improve the lives of Idahoans.”

National Science Foundation: Elucidating Biogenic Control of Heterogenous Ice Nucleation