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Tools from the Human Genome Project reveal a versatile microbe

This bacterium's metabolic range also is seen in the nitrogenase enzymes it uses to fix nitrogen -- a process that converts atmospheric nitrogen into ammonia. Only bacteria can fix nitrogen, and the process is very important in agriculture as it replenishes the soil's ammonia, which improves fertility. A by-product of nitrogen fixation is hydrogen, which can be used as fuel.

Almost every bacterium that fixes nitrogen has just one nitrogenase enzyme. So, the researchers were surprised to find that R. palustris had genes not only for the standard nitrogenase, but also for two additional nitrogenase enzymes. The presence of these additional nitrogenases probably contributes to the ability of R. palustris to make large amounts of hydrogen.

"From an agriculture point of view, the production of hydrogen has been viewed as a bad thing, because the bacteria waste a great deal of energy producing hydrogen that they could be using to feed ammonia to the plant," Harwood said. "However, if you are interested in making hydrogen as a bio-fuel, this bacterium is extraordinarily good at making large amounts of hydrogen and it has the ability to get the energy to do this from light."

Although this bacterium is not currently used in an industrial setting as a biocatalyst to produce hydrogen, several labs in Europe and the U.S. are exploring this possibility.

"What makes this bacterium particularly good as a biocatalyst is that it is never energy-limited as long as you can shine enough light on it," Harwood said. "The process of hydrogen production requires a great deal of energy, so regular bacteria would have to feed on glucose to make that energy, but R. palustris doesn't have that constraint."


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Contact: Jennifer Brown
jennifer-l-brown@uiowa.edu
319-335-9917
University of Iowa
14-Dec-2003


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