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Mine runoff continues to provide clues to microbial diversification

OAK RIDGE, Tenn., March 7, 2007 -- Pink slime at the surface of water trickling through an old mine in California is proving to be a treasure for researchers in their quest to learn more about how bacterial communities exist in nature.

A letter published in todays online edition of Nature shows that it is possible to follow what microorganisms are doing in their natural environment by identifying the range of proteins that they produce. The technique, utilized in a microbial community thriving in battery acid-like streams underground at Richmond Mine near Redding, Calif., combines recently developed ways to sequence microbial genes with methods to identify the range of proteins from specific microbial members.

Researchers from Oak Ridge National Laboratory and UC Berkeley discovered that Leptosprillium group II bacteria in these streams are exchanging large blocks of genes. While scientists have seen extensive gene transfer in bacteria, this is the first observation of exchange of huge genomic blocks in a natural microbial community.

Consequently, this provides important information about the conservation of genetic resources to enable life to survive and thrive, said ORNLs Bob Hettich, a co-author and member of the Chemical Sciences Division. Ultimately, the basic knowledge gained from this research will lead to a greater understanding of genetic diversity in related organisms and should lead to developments in human health and bioremediation.

The combination of mass spectrometry support from ORNL researchers with extensive reconstruction of genomes from community genomic data at UC Berkeley was key to this work, said Jill Banfield, who led the project. Banfield, a professor in UC Berkeleys Department of Environmental Science, Policy and Management, expects this to have far-reaching implications.

More important perhaps is the demonstration of our ability to simultaneously identify a large fraction of an organisms
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Contact: Ron Walli
wallira@ornl.gov
865-576-0226
DOE/Oak Ridge National Laboratory
7-Mar-2007


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