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Study Turns To Microbes For Help With Environmental, Energy Problems

Researchers are turning to microbes for help with some of our biggest problems. The results could lead to a healthier environment and new sources of fuels and chemicals for the 21st century.

Scientists know that bacteria can help cleanse polluted sites, lower the carbon dioxide level in the atmosphere, break down plant tissues, and produce fuels and chemicals. But researchers don”t understand the bacterial machinery that allows them to perform these useful tasks or how to make that machinery more efficient.

Many people may think bacteria are too small to affect environmental problems, but the U.S. Department of Energy does not. It recognizes that bacteria make up for their size with incredible numbers.

As part of a new initiative called the Microbial Cell Project, the DOE is providing scientists at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and four other universities with a three-year, $1.9-million grant. The researchers will study the metabolic pathways and regulatory networks that bacteria use in degrading toxins, generating fuels, taking up carbon dioxide and producing chemicals, according to Timothy Donohue, a microbiologist at the UW-Madison who will lead the effort.

The DOE supported research to sequence all the genes of several important microbes. Now the agency has initiated the Microbial Cell Project to use that sequence information to broaden scientists” fundamental knowledge about how bacteria operate.

“The long-term goal is to build on our new knowledge of bacterial gene sequences to learn how bacteria could be more productive,” Donohue says. “The potential payoffs from research such as this illustrate why it is important to support research in the fields of microbiology and biotechnology.”

The state budget that Wisconsin Gov. Scott McCallum signed in August contained $317 million over 10 years for the UW-Madison”s BioStar program. The program includes funding for a new microbiology building on the Madison campus.

The DOE grant will bring together scientists from the UW-Madison, the University of Delaware, the University of Mississippi Medical Center, the University of Texas Medical School at Houston and the University of Wyoming. The team includes researchers with expertise in biochemistry, genetic, chemical engineering, microbiology, molecular biology and computational techniques.

The team will focus on Rhodobacter sphaeroides, a bacterium whose complete genetic sequence was obtained with DOE support. This bacterium does not cause disease and has several properties that make it attractive for analysis. For example, it has long been used to analyze fundamental aspects of photosynthesis, carbon dioxide fixation and nitrogen fixation, according to Donohue.

“We believe that what we learn about this bacterium will help other scientists use it – and other bacteria – to solve important problems,” Donohue says.