Researchers discover new oceanic bacterial photopigment that converts light into biochemical energy

MOSS LANDING, California -- Microscopic bacteria in the world's oceans have only recently been detectable, but new studies are revealing surprising evidence of their importance.

Microbiologists from the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI) report in the 15 September 2000 issue of the journal Science their discovery of a novel light-absorbing pigment found in oceanic bacteria. The MBARI researchers describe how this new photopigment can generate cellular energy using light. Their discovery suggests that a whole new class of microorganisms is capable of harnessing light energy in the ocean's sunlit surface zone.

"We've uniquely applied new advances in genomic technology to our studies of oceanic microbes and it has lead us to unexpected results," said lead researcher Ed DeLong. "We now have the techniques to address some important ecological questions about the role of these microorganisms in the ocean."

Microbiologists who study oceanic picoplanktonmicroscopic bacteria that are 0.2 to 2 micrometers in diameterface the challenge of studying microorganisms that cannot be readily grown in culture. Using new techniques, biologists have started to identify prominent groups of microbes in the ocean, allowing them to map their distribution and abundance. But the function of those microbes in their environment has remained unknown. DeLong and postdoctoral associate Oded Bj have devised methods to dissect the genomes of the uncultivated microbes, allowing them to identify the functions of specific genes, and predict their ecological significance.

In this recent study, samples of oceanic bacteria were collected in Monterey Bay. The MBARI researchers isolated large genome fragments and, with colleagues at Molecular Dynamics (Sunnyvale, CA), produced the raw gene sequences from the picoplankton DNA. The sequences were assembled and analyzed at MBARI to reveal the encoded genes and their hypothetical function. The oceanic microbia

Contact: Debbie Meyer
Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute

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