UMass microbiology team probes bacterium's surprising survival tactics

ers realized that in previous studies the ability of beobacter to swim had always been analyzed when it had been grown on soluble metals, which are often used in laboratory experiments because they are easy to work with. No one had looked carefully at growth on the metal oxides that Geobacter actually uses in natural environments. When Childers looked carefully at cultures grown on iron oxide, the cells had produced flagella and were swimming.

This research is a wonderful demonstration of the power of genetic sequence information to predict important physiological and ecological attributes of a microorganism, said Ari Patrinos, head of the Energy Departments Office of Biological and Environmental Research which supported the sequencing of Geobacter.

The genome also contained genes which suggested that Geobacter might be able to sense chemicals in the environment. To see if this was also related to growth on metals, Childers set up a series of microscope slides on which the bacteria needed to travel to reach the metal necessary for their survival. When she looked in the microscope, the bacteria were growing flagella and swimming to the metal source. These bacteria really do grow flagella in order to search for, and establish contact with, the soluble iron or manganese oxides they need, Childers said. Under the microscope, the microbes are cigar-shaped, and one to two microns long; 10,000 of them would measure an inch.

Once the bacterium reaches the metal, it is able to grow the short, hair-like structures called pili, which allow the bacterium to anchor itself to the metal source, ensuring growth. These are incredibly energy-efficient strategies, when you think about it, said Lovley. The geobacter doesnt waste energy growing flagella or pili unless it genuinely needs them. But if its not located near metal, it somehow senses that it better get up and start moving, and the gene that governs the growth of flagella comes into play.


Contact: Elizabeth Luciano
University of Massachusetts at Amherst

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