A team of microbiologists affiliated with the University of Massachusetts at Amherst (UMass) has uncovered the unusual survival strategies used by a common bacterium. The finding could have implications in cleaning up contaminants ranging from petroleum to uranium. Results of the National Science Foundation (NSF)-funded study by UMass microbiologist Derek Lovley and colleagues will be published in the April 18 issue of Nature. The research was also funded by the U.S. Department of Energy.
Scientists have long known that the bacteria species, Geobacter metallireducens, is commonly found in soil and consumes metals - specifically, iron and manganese oxides. The new findings detail the microorganisms' intriguing survival tactics. First, the species is apparently able to locate and home in on the metal that serves as its food source. "This is the first microorganism found to have a built-in sensor that allows it to essentially 'sniff out' metals," said Lovley. And if a source of iron or manganese is not nearby, the bacterium - which was previously believed to be incapable of movement - can essentially decide to grow flagella, the whip-like structures that enable bacteria to swim.
"This work demonstrates again that basic research, in addition to answering the questions for which it was specifically designed, can also produce totally unexpected insights into the natural world," says Susan Porter Ridley, program director in NSF's division of molecular and cellular biosciences. "In this case, the sequence of bases in a microbe's DNA led to the discovery that the microbe can actually sense and locate chemicals it needs. This knowledge, in turn, shows great promise for helping us solve the problem of environmental pollution."
Scientists were already aware that some bacteria species, such as the well-studied E coli, are able to sense and swim toward sugars. But scientists had never seen Geobacter swim, leading UMass researchers to wonder ho
Contact: Cheryl Dybas
National Science Foundation