Marine genomics researchers discover new ocean protein

Novel study published in Science sheds light on microbial ecology, energy and nutrient cycling in the sea

SUNNYVALE, CA, 14 September 2000 - Using the same DNA sequencing technology that played a key role in decoding the human genome, scientists have discovered a new type of light-activated protein in surface water bacteria that may represent a new mechanism for cycling carbon in the oceans and utilizing sunlight for food production. The study, conducted by researchers from Amersham Pharmacia Biotech and Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute in Moss Landing, CA, is published in the September 15, 2000 issue of Science.

The protein, called a "proteorhodopsin," was discovered through genomic analyses of bacteria found in plankton taken from surface waters in Monterey Bay. Unlike most studies of microbial genomes, DNA samples were taken directly from the bacteria instead of being isolated and cultured in a laboratory. The microbial DNA was isolated from the seawater samples and sequenced using Amersham Pharmacia Biotech's MegaBACE 1000 high-throughput instruments and DNA sequencing reagents at the company's Production Sequencing Laboratory in Sunnyvale.

Through genomic analyses, the researchers determined that when exposed to light, the protein pumps ions across the cell membrane, the basic mechanism for generating energy for all life. The study challenges the long-held presumption that most planktonic bacteria live like humans, by eating energy-rich organic compounds. The discovery of this new photoprotein shows that these marine microbes, which are abundant in surface seawater, most likely subsist by using light energy.

"This type of information is valuable because it tells us what these organisms might be doing out in the ocean and how they are making a living out there," said Dr. Robert A. Feldman, Production Sequencing and Collaborations Manager for Amersham Pharmacia Biotech. "The study highlights our ignorance of oc

Contact: Marcy Saack
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