- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 1, 2001

The hardest-to-find microbes might yield big clues in the battle to fight infection and disease.

That is why microbiologist Hazel Barton is rappelling down a 300-foot cliff in the Arizona desert, shivering in an ice cave on Greenland and scuba diving through underwater caves in Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula.

Ms. Barton is one of the stars of "Journey Into Amazing Caves," an Imax movie that opened recently at the Johnson Imax Theater at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History.

In the movie, Ms. Barton, along with fellow caver Nancy Aulenbach, combines her vocation, science, with her avocation, caving, in a beautifully shot adventure on three continents.

"This was a very technically difficult movie," says Ms. Aulenbach, a teacher in Norcross, Ga. "We were going into places that were unknown."

Once in the unexplored caves, Ms. Aulenbach, 29, used her caving experience to survey the area so she eventually could make a map for other cavers. Ms. Barton, also 29, captured soil, water and ice samples to study extremophiles organisms that live in extremely hostile conditions.

"Extremophiles have vast scientific potential," says Ms. Barton, who is primarily a tuberculosis re-searcher at the University of Colorado at Boulder. "Trying to find unique organisms could hold the key to antibiotic research. The problem with today's antibiotics is that 90 percent of them are from organisms that are so similar to everything else. Now we have drug-resistant TB, and superbugs are going to be a reality."

By obtaining samples of life in the 112-degree Arizona desert, inside a solid wall of ice or from an underwater cave with virtually no light, scientists can see how microorganisms have adapted to survive, she says.

The women's expedition began in Arizona, where they literally "dropped in" to a cave on the side of a mountain.

"The dry desert is perfect for extremophiles," Ms. Barton says.

In Greenland, the cavers flew by helicopter 60 miles to the middle of the icy island, where there was better depth potential, Ms. Aulenbach says. Along with a team of French scientists, they probed a 600-foot vertical ice shaft.

"A glacier is a time capsule," Ms. Barton says. "We could get ice samples that fell as snow centuries ago."

After a brief respite to take Ms. Aulenbach's second-graders to a Georgia cave inhabited by thousands of bats, the cavers were off again, this time to Mexico. Their mission was to find an underwater confluence of freshwater and saltwater.

To explore this, Ms. Barton went cave diving, an extremely dangerous form of scuba diving, in an uncharted cave. One wrong turn or episode of swirling silt could prove deadly.

Ms. Barton survived, though, finding fish that are blind from living in darkness. She also found the underwater spot where the the freshwater and saltwater meet.

The samples from all three locations are under investigation, she says. It could be years before the research pays off in fighting disease.

"There are many steps in research," Ms. Barton says. "This is just the beginning. However, in the work we have done in the lab so far, we have found three new kingdoms of bacteria."

"Journey Into Amazing Caves" runs several times daily through September. Tickets cost $6.50 for adults, $5.50 for youths and seniors. Call 202/633-7400 or visit the Web site (www.mnh.si.edu/imax) for exact show times.

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