UMass microbiology team probes bacterium's surprising survival tactics

AMHERST, Mass. A team of microbiologists at the University of Massachusetts 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. The study, by Derek Lovley, head of the microbiology department, and Susan Childers, a postdoctoral researcher, will be detailed in the April 18 issue of the journal Nature. The research was funded by the National Science Foundation and the U.S. Department of Energy.

Scientists have long known that the bacteria species in question, geobacter metallireducens, is commonly found in soil and consumes metal: 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.

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 how it found that metals that serve as its energy source.

Clues to the puzzles were found as Geobacters genome was sequenced in collaboration with the Institute for Genomic Research. The Geobacters genetic code revealed a startling discrepancy: We looked at the complete genetic code, and saw clear evidence of genes for flagella, so we realized this bacterium does indeed have the genetic potential to swim, said Lovley. The question then was, Does this have anything to do with Geobacters growth on metals?

Lovley and Child

Contact: Elizabeth Luciano
University of Massachusetts at Amherst

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