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(Bio) Archaea: Undersea Microbes

 
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PostPosted: Tue Apr 11, 2006 10:23 am    Post subject: (Bio) Archaea: Undersea Microbes Reply with quote






Undersea microbes active but living on the slow side
Thursday, February 23, 2006

Penn State
--------------------------------------------------------------------------------

University Park, Pa. – Deeply buried ocean sediments may house populations of tiny organisms that have extremely low-maintenance energy needs and population turnover rates of anywhere from 200 to 2,000 years, according to an international team of researchers.

"The microbial ecosystem in deeply buried marine sediments may comprise a tenth of Earth's living biomass, but little is known about the organisms, their physiologies, and their influence on surface environments," says Jennifer F. Biddle, graduate student in biochemistry, microbiology and molecular biology and member of the NASA- sponsored Penn State Astrobiology Research Center.

The populations of interest are two groups of Archaea – tiny bacteria-like organisms that are often found in extreme environments such as deep-sea hot vents, inside cows or termites or in deep sediments. The samples were gathered during the National Science Foundation-sponsored Ocean Drilling Program Leg 201 off the coast of Peru.

"The samples showed strikingly elevated concentrations of cells in deeply buried sulfate-methane transition zones," says Christopher H. House, assistant professor of geosciences, Penn State. "Sulfate methane transition zones are areas where both methane and sulfate diffuse and both compounds are used by local denizens."

The researchers looked for 16S rRNA in the sediment samples and found the transition zones dominated by two groups – Marine Benthic Group B and Miscellaneous Crenarchaeotal Group. rRNA is found in a cell's ribosome and is part of the protein manufacturing mechanism of a cell. The presence of a specific sequence of 16S rRNA distinguishes the types of Archaea and the analysis also identifies Archaea that are active, excluding inactive cells and fossils.

"Other researchers have found DNA analysis of sediments from some sites to indicate that the majority of organisms were Bacteria and not Archaea," says House. "We used methods that identify only active cells and found Archaea."

Another method of identifying the active populations -- both in size and type -- looked at intact polar lipids, an indication of live rather than fossil cells.

"These tests and others indicate that there is a sizeable and active archaeal community," says House.

Besides simply knowing that populations of Archaea exist in the deep sediment layers at the sulfate-methane transition zones, the researchers looked at the energy sources for these microbes. Many organisms living in environments with methane use the methane for energy and use the methane's carbon to grow, repair and reproduce. Looking at the carbon isotopes the researchers found that few, if any, of these Archaea used methane as a carbon source. They also found that conversion of carbon dioxide to methane was not fueling these Archaea.

"Because the carbon isotopes from the Archaea match the total organic carbon found in the sediment in general, it suggests that the bulk archaeal community uses organic compounds derived from fossil organic matter," says House.

The researchers suggest in this week’s issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences online, that degradation of organic matter in the sediment, especially the formation of small molecules like acetate and formate, are the likely sources of carbon.

"Real maintenance energies in subsurface environments must be much lower than what has been experimentally determined in laboratory cultures," says Biddle. "If conventional maintenance energies are used, only about 2 percent maximum of the population could survive. However, cellular maintenance energies are expected to be significantly lower when cells divide at extremely low rates."

In fact, the researchers estimate that these Archaea may completely turn over population as frequently as every 70 years, or as infrequently as 2,150 years. They also suggest that the sulfate-methane transition zone is a much better environment than other areas in the sediment and that turnover rates are even lower away from the transition zone.

This is because the Archaea in the transition zone, while not using the carbon from methane oxidation, are still getting some energy from breaking down the methane molecules, energy that is not available in other portions of the sediment.

"These Archaea subsist on the sedimentary organic carbon available and the energy from breaking down methane until they accumulate enough resources to divide," says House. "Surprisingly they require much less energy to maintain and take much longer than expected until they can divide."

This international research team was lead by House, Kai-Uwe Hinrichs from the University of Bremen and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, and Andreas Teske from the University of North Carolina. The team included graduate students Biddle, Julius S. Lipp, Mark Lever and Karen Lloyd.

The National Science Foundation, NASA Astrobiology Institute, Deutcsche Forschungsgemeinschaft and the U.S. Department of Energy supported this work.

*************************************************************

Related Articles

http://www.sciencedaily.com/re.....083400.htm
http://www.sciencedaily.com/re.....071525.htm
http://www.sciencedaily.com/re.....171043.htm

*************************************************************

Questions to explore further this topic:

What are Prokaryotes?

http://www.bact.wisc.edu/Bact3.....rokaryotes

A Digital Learning Center for Microbial Ecology

http://commtechlab.msu.edu/sites/dlc-me/zoo/

An Online Textbook for Microbial Diversity

http://www.learner.org/channel.....rob_4.html

What are Archaea?

http://www.microbe.org/microbes/archaea.asp
http://www.ucmp.berkeley.edu/archaea/archaea.html
http://library.thinkquest.org/.....rchaea.htm
http://www.windows.ucar.edu/to.....p;edu=high
http://www.waterindustry.org/W.....haea-3.htm
http://honeybee.helsinki.fi/us.....rchaea.htm
http://comenius.susqu.edu/BI/2.....efault.htm

What do fossil records of Archaea tell us?

http://www.ucmp.berkeley.edu/a.....aeafr.html

History of Archaeans

http://www.bacteriamuseum.org/.....tion.shtml

What is the ecology of Archaea?

http://www.ucmp.berkeley.edu/a.....aealh.html

How are Archaeans classified?

http://www.museums.org.za/bio/archaea/index.htm
http://www.ucmp.berkeley.edu/a.....aeasy.html
http://users.rcn.com/jkimball......chaea.html
http://www.sidwell.edu/us/scie.....b/Archaea/

What is inside an Archaean? (Morphology: Structure and Form)

http://www.ucmp.berkeley.edu/a.....aeasy.html

What are examples of extreme environments?

http://www.nhm.ac.uk/research-.....k-extreme/
http://www.mediscover.net/Extremophiles.cfm

Acidophiles
http://library.thinkquest.org/CR0212089/acid.htm

Thermophiles
http://library.thinkquest.org/CR0212089/therm.htm

Alkaliphiles
http://library.thinkquest.org/CR0212089/alk.htm

Psychrophiles
http://library.thinkquest.org/CR0212089/psyc.htm

Xerophiles
http://library.thinkquest.org/CR0212089/xero.htm

Halophiles
http://library.thinkquest.org/CR0212089/halo.htm

Barophiles
http://library.thinkquest.org/CR0212089/baro.htm

Mesophiles
http://library.thinkquest.org/CR0212089/meso.htm

How do archaeans survive extreme environments?

http://www.astrobio.net/news/article1876.html
http://www.genomenewsnetwork.o.....remo.shtml
http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/sci/tech/399972.stm
http://dissertations.ub.rug.nl.....ossenberg/

Halobacteria as a Teaching Tool

http://zdna2.umbi.umd.edu/~haloed/Introduction.htm

Biotechnology involving Archaeans?

http://www.colorado.edu/che/chen1000/archaea.html

GAMES

http://www.secretsatsea.org/main.html
http://pbskids.org/dragonflytv/games/index.html
http://www.microbe.org/
http://www.kidsdomain.com/games/animal2.html


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PostPosted: Thu Sep 28, 2006 7:54 pm    Post subject: Lazarus Microbe's Immortality Secret Revealed Reply with quote

Lazarus Microbe's Immortality Secret Revealed

By Ker Than
LiveScience Staff Writer
posted: 28 September 2006
10:36 am ET



Scientists have discovered a novel genetic repair process that allows a hardy desert microbe to die and resurrect over and over again.

The finding, detailed in the Sept. 28 issue of the journal Nature, could lead to new forms of regenerative medicines and might even allow scientists to one day bring dead cells in our own bodies back to life.

Deinococcus radiodurans is a so-called extremophile bacterium that can survive intense bouts of heat and UV radiation that shatters its genome into hundreds of DNA fragments. Without a genome, the microbe is effectively dead because it can't synthesize the proteins necessary for life.

In only a few hours, though, Deinococcus can reassemble its genome and return to life.

For the full article:

http://www.livescience.com/hum....._cell.html
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PostPosted: Fri Oct 20, 2006 10:07 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

Thursday, October 19, 2006

AAAS Office of Public Programs

Otherworldly Bacteria Discovered Two Miles Down


Washington, D.C.–Researchers have discovered an isolated, self-sustaining, bacterial community living under extreme conditions almost two miles deep beneath the surface in a South African gold mine. It is the first microbial community demonstrated to be exclusively dependent on geologically produced sulfur and hydrogen and one of the few ecosystems found on Earth that does not depend on energy from the Sun in any way. The discovery, appearing in the October 20 issue of Science, raises the possibility that similar bacteria could live beneath the surface of other worlds, such as Mars or Jupiter’s moon Europa.

For the full article:

http://www.carnegieinstitution....._1019.html
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PostPosted: Wed Apr 25, 2007 5:41 pm    Post subject: The Invisible World: All About Microbes Reply with quote

The Invisible World: All About Microbes

By Andrea Thompson
LiveScience Staff Writer
posted: 25 April 2007
03:31 pm ET

Microbes might be tiny and hard to see, but they account for a large percentage of Earth's biodiversity. They have been living on the planet for 3.8 billion years compared to 200,000 for humans, and for most of the Earth’s existence, they have been the only form of life around.

In fact, all life on Earth today, including trees and fish and people, is thought to have evolved from the earliest microbes.

The term “microbe” describes bacteria, archaea, single-celled eukaryotic organisms such as amoebas, slime molds and parameciums, and even viruses by some broad definitions. (Viruses are disputed because they are considered non-living and cannot replicate on their own, but the field of microbiology usually includes the study of viruses.) Most microbes are unicellular, meaning one cell comprises each individual.

For the full article:

http://www.livescience.com/oth.....rview.html
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PostPosted: Sat May 12, 2007 6:42 am    Post subject: Xtreme Microbes Reply with quote

Xtreme Microbes
National Science Foundation

They’re called extremophiles and they live in hellish places once thought uninhabitable.

Now, they’re revealing their secrets to science …

Link to the Xtreme Microbes website:

http://www.nsf.gov/news/special_reports/microbes/
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PostPosted: Mon May 21, 2007 8:16 pm    Post subject: Our Microbes, Ourselves Reply with quote

Week of May 19, 2007; Vol. 171, No. 20 , p. 314

Our Microbes, Ourselves
How bacterial communities in the body influence human health
Alexandra Goho

In the womb, a fetus enjoys the protection of a sterile environment. Only when the mother's amniotic sac ruptures before delivery does her baby face microbes for the first time. As he's squeezed through the birth canal, he picks up millions of bacteria from his mother. Most of the microbes are friendly and quickly take up residence on the baby's skin and in his gastrointestinal tract.

For the full article:

http://sciencenews.org/articles/20070519/bob9.asp
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PostPosted: Tue Jun 12, 2007 9:46 am    Post subject: Extreme environment biology research may help solve lignocel Reply with quote

DOE/Sandia National Laboratories
12 June 2007

Extreme environment biology research may help solve lignocellulosic ethanol puzzle

Extreme Makeover -- nature edition?
LIVERMORE, Calif. — Buried beneath a sulfurous cauldron in European seas lies a class of microorganisms known as “extremophiles,” so named because of the extreme environmental conditions in which they live and thrive. Almost as radical, perhaps, is the idea that these organisms and their associated enzymes could somehow unlock the key to a new transportation economy based on a renewable biofuel, lignocellulosic ethanol.

That’s the concept behind an internally funded research program at Sandia National Laboratories, now in its second year. As researchers search for ways to process cellulosic biomass cheaply and efficiently for the production of lignocellulosic ethanol, the Sandia project aims to successfully demonstrate various computational tools and enzyme engineering methods that will make extreme enzymes relevant to the technical debate. Processing of biomass key to ethanol production Blake Simmons, a chemical engineer and project lead at Sandia’s Livermore, Calif., site, says that the primary hurdle preventing lignocellulosic ethanol from becoming a viable transportation fuel is not the availability of lignocellulosic biomass, but rather its efficient and cost-effective processing.

Sandia is a National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) laboratory.

“Production is not a concern. More than a billion tons of biomass is estimated to be created each year in the timber and agricultural industries, as well as a variety of grasses and potential energy crops,” says Simmons. “Unfortunately, you can’t just take a tree trunk, stick it into an enzymatic reactor, and ferment the sugar produced into ethanol with any kind of efficiency. The process of turning certain lignocellulosic materials into ethanol is very difficult and costly.”

That process, says Simmons, typically involves several pretreatment steps that break up lignocellulosic material into easily converted polymers.

Continuing with the tree trunk analogy, Simmons says the laborious process typically begins by chopping the biomass to reduce its size and then delivering it into a dilute acid pretreatment reactor. The reactor then would break down the biomass into cellulose, hemicellulose, and lignin. The hemicellulose and cellulose polymers released from the biomass must go through additional processing and acid neutralization before the final product is recovered and placed back into an enzymatic reactor to deconstruct the polymers into fermentable sugars. Not exactly swift and efficient, says Simmons, and very costly.

Utilizing nature’s own extreme enzymes

Enter enzymes isolated from extremophiles, which may solve this vexing processing riddle. Sandia’s current biological object of interest, said Simmons, is Sulfolobus solfataricus, an organism whose extreme enzymes were isolated and discovered years ago by the German researcher Georg Lipps. Sulfolobus expresses cellulase enzymes that are known to exist in organisms that prosper in sulfuric acid environments and, through an inexplicable quirk of nature, efficiently break down cellulose into sugars.

“Biology generally likes sugar,” said Simmons, “since it offers an easy energy intermediate that can be converted into some usable output.” The Sandia team members, he said, are apparently among a handful of researchers looking at enzymes expressed by Sulfolobus and manipulating them in the laboratory with the objective of processing biomass into cellulosic ethanol.

Extreme enzymes, Simmons said, can be found in a variety of locales, including hot springs, gold mines, and even within the rust found under a leaking hot water heater.

While other researchers are examining common biomass sources and attempting to express their enzymes at higher temperatures and lowered pH, Sandia has, in effect, taken the opposite approach.

“Instead of trying to create an extremozyme from sources that live in rather benign environmental conditions, why not just manipulate a real one isolated from its natural state"” asks Simmons. Sandia, he said, has brought the DNA that produces these extreme enzymes into the lab, where researchers then employ a technique called “site-directed mutagenesis” to manipulate and optimize the enzymes’ genetic sequence in hopes of improving performance. These mutations are identified using computational modeling techniques at Sandia that compare the structure and sequence of the extremozymes with their more benign counterparts to identify key genetic sequences of interest.

“The ultimate dream — and it’s only a dream right now — would be to take a poplar tree, put it into a tank, let it sit for three days, then come back and watch as the ethanol comes pouring out of the spigot,” says Simmons. “Though we’re probably decades away from that, this project aims to consolidate the pretreatment steps and get us one step closer to realizing that vision.”

Ethanol products the same, but starting material vastly different

The benefits of developing biomass-to-ethanol technology are well-known, says Grant Heffelfinger, senior manager for molecular and computational biosciences at Sandia’s Albuquerque, N.M., site and the lab’s lead on biofuels programs. He points to increased national energy security, reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, use of renewable resources, and other oft-cited advantages. “But corn ethanol must compete with food markets, leaving lignocellulosic ethanol as the fuel most likely to make the most meaningful short-term impact in reducing gasoline’s stranglehold on the transportation sector,” said Heffelfinger.

Although the end product with cellulosic ethanol and corn ethanol is the same, Simmons points out, the difference is in the complexity of the starting material. While corn is a simple, starch-based material that is easily processed into fermentable sugars, cellulosic biomass consists of a cellulose polymer, wrapped within a complex vascular structure of lignin and hemicellulose and other components.

“Because lignocellulosic biomass is such a multifaceted material, we need to have a fundamental understanding of how it works,” said Simmons. While various industry researchers, he said, are investigating new technologies and facilities that will allow for the processing cellulosic biomass into ethanol, he and his Sandia colleagues are hopeful that their method can be efficiently and cheaply integrated with current and future pretreatment steps. “We believe extremophile enzymes — and the technology that demonstrates how to use them — can be a very powerful resource for the research and industrial community to draw upon,” he said.

Research expected to lead to commercial partnerships and JBEI

Simmons presented his team’s preliminary findings from the extremophile project recently at the 4th World Congress on Industrial Biotechnology & Bioprocessing. The team hopes to publish more advanced findings soon and is finalizing several proposals that could lead to further funding. The lab would be open, Simmons said, to conducting collaborative R&D with other commercial partners or research entities, or to licensing its research capabilities.

This and other efforts at Sandia National Laboratories are expected to be a vital component of the Joint Bio-Energy Institute (JBEI), a multilab/university effort to bring a Department of Energy-funded bioresearch facility to the San Francisco Bay Area. Sandia is planning a key role in that facility, which will focus on cost-effective, biologically based renewable energy sources to reduce U.S. dependence on fossil fuels.

“We believe the use of enzyme engineering to enable the next generation of ethanol biorefineries, with a focus on extremophile enzymes, is a realistic and achievable goal,” said Simmons. “But we need others to believe, too.”


###


Sandia is a multiprogram laboratory operated by Sandia Corporation, a Lockheed Martin company, for the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration. Sandia has major R&D responsibilities in national security, energy and environmental technologies, and economic competitiveness.

Release and images are available at http://www.sandia.gov/news/res.....zymes.html


Sandia National Laboratories’ World Wide Web home page is located at http://www.sandia.gov
Sandia news releases, news tips, science photo gallery, and periodicals can be found at the News Center button.
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PostPosted: Thu Oct 04, 2007 1:18 pm    Post subject: Hydrothermal vents: Hot spots of microbial diversity Reply with quote

Marine Biological Laboratory
4 October 2007

Hydrothermal vents: Hot spots of microbial diversity

New analysis aids in discovery of thousands of deep-sea microbes
MBL, WOODS HOLE, MA—Thousands of new kinds of marine microbes have been discovered at two deep-sea hydrothermal vents off the Oregon coast by scientists at the MBL (Marine Biological Laboratory) and University of Washington’s Joint Institute for the Study of Atmosphere and Ocean. Their findings, published in the October 5 issue of the journal Science, are the result of the most comprehensive, comparative study to date of deep-sea microbial communities that are responsible for cycling carbon, nitrogen, and sulfur to help keep Earth habitable.

Using a new analytical technique called “454 tag sequencing,” the scientists surveyed one million DNA sequences of bacteria and archaea, two of the three major domains of life. The DNA was taken from samples collected from two hydrothermal vents on the Pacific deep-sea volcano, Axial Seamount.

The researchers discovered that while there may be as few as 3,000 different kinds of archaea at these sites, the bacteria exceed 37,000 different kinds.

“Most of these bacteria had never been reported before, and hundreds were so different from known microbes that we could only identify them to the level of phylum,” says lead author, Julie Huber of the MBL. “Clearly, additional sampling of these communities will be necessary to determine the true diversity.”

The research also revealed that the microbial population structures differed between vent sites due to their different geochemical environments. The ability to link environmental characteristics with microbial population structures using 454 tag sequencing allows scientists to assess how natural and manmade environmental changes are affecting diverse habitats on Earth.

Until now, microbiologists have had limited tools for assessing microbial populations and diversity. The MBL’s 454 tag sequencing strategy is an important contribution to the young science of metagenomics, which seeks to characterize communities of organisms through genomic analysis. While other metagenomic studies look at all the genes in an environmental sample, such as a bucket of seawater or scoop of sediment, 454 tag sequencing examines one tiny, highly variable region of one gene that all microbes have (the 16s rRNA gene). It is much more efficient and cost effective than other environmental microbial survey tools.

“The tremendous diversity we found using 454 tag sequencing suggests that even the largest metagenomic surveys--which capture only the most highly abundant taxa-- inadequately represent the full extent of microbial diversity,” says MBL scientist David Mark Welch, one of Huber’s co-authors. “Even with tag sequencing, statistical tests of our data suggest we still only sampled about half of the total number of species that were actually present.”

The new findings also underscore just how daunting understanding marine microbial diversity is. “This research demonstrates that surveys of hundreds of thousands of sequences will be necessary to capture the vast diversity of microbial communities, and that different patterns in evenness for both high and low-abundance taxa may be important in defining microbial ecosystem dynamics,” says Mitchell Sogin, director of the MBL’s Josephine Bay Paul Center for Comparative Molecular Biology and Evolution.

This research is part of the ongoing International Census of Marine Microbes, a massive effort to inventory the world’s marine microbial diversity. It is also part of a major MBL initiative to study microbial ecology and evolution to understand how microbial communities are evolving in response to natural and human-induced environmental changes.


###
The NASA Astrobiology Institute, the National Research Council, L’Oréal USA, the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation’s International Census of Marine Microbes, and the W.M. Keck Foundation all provided funding for this study.

The MBL is an international, independent, nonprofit institution dedicated to discovery and to improving the human condition through creative research and education in the biological, biomedical and environmental sciences. Founded in 1888 as the Marine Biological Laboratory, the MBL is the oldest private marine laboratory in the Western Hemisphere. For more information, visit www.MBL.edu
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PostPosted: Tue Oct 16, 2007 1:30 pm    Post subject: Symposium marks 30th anniversary of discovery of third domai Reply with quote

Symposium marks 30th anniversary of discovery of third domain of life

Diana Yates, Life Sciences Editor


Released 10/16/07


CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Thirty years ago this month, researchers at the University of Illinois published a discovery that challenged basic assumptions about the broadest classifications of life. Their discovery – which was based on an analysis of ribosomal RNA, an ancient molecule essential to the replication of all cells – opened up a new field of study, and established a first draft of the evolutionary “tree of life.”

For the full article and links:

http://www.news.uiuc.edu/news/.....omain.html
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PostPosted: Wed Nov 14, 2007 3:05 pm    Post subject: Methane-Guzzling Bacteria Thrive in Bubbling Mud Pots Reply with quote

Methane-Guzzling Bacteria Thrive in Bubbling Mud Pots
By Jeanna Bryner, LiveScience Staff Writer

posted: 14 November 2007 01:00 pm ET

Tiny bacteria hiding out in a witches' brew of bubbling mud not only thrive in the searing-hot slurry but also chow down on its methane.

Two papers published online this week in the journal Nature describe these mud-loving microbes, the hardiest bacteria identified to date. Found living in mud volcanoes and other geothermal hideouts, the bacteria feast on methane, considered the second most abundant greenhouse gas behind carbon dioxide. While carbon dioxide makes up the majority of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, methane traps about 20 times more heat and so is a critical global warmer.

For the full article:

http://www.livescience.com/ani.....zlers.html
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PostPosted: Mon Dec 03, 2007 2:26 pm    Post subject: Bioprospectors identify hot new biofuel-producing bacteria Reply with quote

Bioprospectors identify hot new biofuel-producing bacteria
3 December 2007
Energy & Fuels

A bioprospecting expedition to Iceland’s famed hot springs has yielded new strains of bacteria with potential of producing hydrogen and ethanol fuels from wastewater now discharged from factories that process sugar beets, potatoes and other plant material. The microbes hold potential for combining energy production with wastewater treatment, according to a report on the discovery scheduled for the Jan./Feb. issue of ACS’ Energy & Fuels, a bi-monthly journal.

In the study, Perttu E. P. Koskinen and colleagues point out that ethanol and hydrogen are two leading eco-friendly candidates for supplementing world supplies of oil, coal, and other conventional fuels. Research suggests that there would be advantages in producing those fuels by fermentation with bacteria capable of withstanding higher temperatures than microbes now in use.

Knowing that thermophilic, or heat-loving, bacteria inhabit Iceland’s hot springs, the scientists “bioprospected” scalding-hot geothermal springs in different parts of the country for new ethanol and hydrogen-producing bacteria. After screening samples, including those from springs that approached the boiling point of water, the scientists enriched promising microorganisms that can produce the compounds from glucose or cellulose at high temperatures. The enrichments included those with unusually high yields of hydrogen or ethanol from carbohydrates.

ARTICLE #4 FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
“Bioprospecting Thermophilic Microorganisms from Icelandic Hot Springs for Hydrogen and Ethanol Production”

DOWNLOAD PDF
http://pubs.acs.org/cgi-bin/sa.....00275w.pdf

DOWNLOD HTML
http://pubs.acs.org/cgi-bin/sa.....0275w.html
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PostPosted: Thu Dec 06, 2007 6:31 pm    Post subject: 'Hellish' hot springs yield greenhouse gas-eating bug Reply with quote

University of Calgary
6 December 2007

'Hellish' hot springs yield greenhouse gas-eating bug
Methane-gobbling bacteria could aid climate change battle
A new species of bacteria discovered living in one of the most extreme environments on Earth could yield a tool in the fight against global warming.

In a paper published today in the prestigious science journal Nature, U of C biology professor Peter Dunfield and colleagues describe the methane-eating microorganism they found in the geothermal field known as Hell’s Gate, near the city of Rotorua in New Zealand. It is the hardiest “methanotrophic” bacterium yet discovered, which makes it a likely candidate for use in reducing methane gas emissions from landfills, mines, industrial wastes, geothermal power plants and other sources.

“This is a really tough methane-consuming organism that lives in a much more acidic environment than any we’ve seen before,” said Dunfield, who is the lead author of the paper. “It belongs to a rather mysterious family of bacteria (called Verrucomicrobia) that are found everywhere but are very difficult to grow in the laboratory.”

Methanotrophic bacteria consume methane as their only source of energy and convert it to carbon dioxide during their digestive process. Methane (commonly known as natural gas) is 20 times more potent a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide and is largely produced by decaying organic matter. Scientists have long known that vast amounts of methane are produced in acidic environments, not only geothermal sites but also marshes and peat bogs. Much of it is consumed by methanotrophic bacteria, which serve an important role in regulating the methane content of the world’s atmosphere.

“Scientists are interested in understanding what conditions cause these bacteria to be more or less active in the environment” says Dunfield, “Unfortunately, few species have been closely studied. We now know that there are many more out there.”

Dunfield has tentatively named the new bacterium Methylokorus infernorum to reflect the ‘hellish’ location of its discovery where it lives in boiling waters filled with chemicals that are toxic to most life forms. The Maori caretakers of the site, the Tikitere trust, have supported scientific study of the area. The study was conducted while Dunfield was working for GNS Science, a geological research institute owned by the New Zealand government. He recently joined the U of C’s Department of Biological Sciences as a professor of environmental microbiology.

The bacterium’s genome has been completely sequenced by researchers at the University of Hawaii and Nankai University in China, which could help develop biotechnological applications for this organism.

Dunfield said he plans to pursue his work in Canada by hunting for new life forms in extreme environments such as northern peatlands, the oilsands of northern Alberta and the hot springs of Western Canada.

“Hot springs are exotic and extreme habitats, where you find a lot of bizarre organisms,” he said. “Bacteria are a fascinating group to work with because 95 per cent of them have never been studied in a lab and we have very little idea about what this huge amount of biodiversity is capable of.”


###
Dunfield’s Nature article was published online on November 14, 2007 and in the December 6 edition of the journal. Full text of the article is available on Nature’s website at: www.nature.com
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