Scientists discover how ocean bacterium turns carbon into fuel

By | March 6, 2010

Scientists discover how ocean bacterium turns carbon into fuel (w/ Video)Reduce. Reuse. Recycle. We hear this mantra time and again. When it comes to carbon‹the “Most Wanted” element in terms of climate change‹nature has got reuse and recycle covered. However, it’s up to us to reduce. Scientists at Harvard Medical School are trying to meet this challenge by learning more about the carbon cycle, that is, the process by which carbon moves from the atmosphere into plants, oceans, soils, the earth’s crust, and back into the atmosphere again.

One of the biggest movers and shakers is the lowly cyanobacteria, an ocean-dwelling, one-celled organism. Pamela Silver, HMS professor of systems biology, and colleagues have uncovered details about how this bacteria fixes, or digests, carbon. These bacteria build miniature factories inside themselves that turn carbon into fuel.

Silver and her colleagues report that the bacteria organize these factories spatially, revealing a structural sophistication not often seen in single-celled organisms. This regular and predictable spacing improves the efficiency of carbon processing. In the future, an understanding of the mechanisms that govern this spatial organization may help improve the efficiency of designer bacteria engineered to produce carbon-neutral fuels such as biodiesel and hydrogen.

These findings will be published online March 5 in the journal Science.

The rod-shaped cyanobacteria are among the most abundant organisms on earth. Forty percent of the carbon in the carbon cycle is reused and recycled through these tiny creatures. To process carbon, cyanobacteria build soccer-ball-shaped structures inside themselves called carboxysomes. These tiny factories absorb carbon dioxide and convert it into sugar, which the bacteria then use to produce energy.

“The ocean is just packed with these bacteria. By studying them, we’re understanding more about how the earth works,” said Silver, who is also on the faculty of the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at HMS. “I’m blown away by what’s happening in the ocean and what we don’t understand about it. There are a lot of things in the ocean that are going to be useful to us.” …

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