New research to find environment-cleansing bugs
WASHINGTON - Microbes that thrive on nuclear waste, that can scrub greenhouse gases from the air and turn toxic soil pure again are the targets of new federal research funds, the Department of Energy said this week.
It announced it was funding $103 million in grants to 26 laboratories to use genome science to try and make such bugs useful to humankind, part of its \"Genomes to Life\" program.
\"Our researchers have mapped the genome of a strange bug that lives quite happily in an environment that has one million times the radiation that a human could withstand,\" Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham told a ceremony awarding the grants.
\"Now that we have sequenced the bug, we are ready to turn it to our own advantage,\" he added. Abraham hopes scientists can find a way to use the bacterium to clean up nuclear waste.
\"We can make bugs that eat carbon dioxide, we can make trees grow in climates that are barren today,\" he added.
Genomics studies the entire genetic code of a living animal, and scientists have sequenced the genomes of creatures ranging from single-celled bacteria and yeast to the human being.
The idea is to first understand the DNA, and then tweak it to make an organism do something slightly differently.
Genetic engineering has already created bacteria that produce human insulin for use by diabetes patients, sheep and rabbits that produce human proteins to treat cystic fibrosis, and goats that make the ingredients for spider silk in their milk.
Scientists have long looked at extremophiles - bacteria that live in hotter, colder, more toxic, and more radioactive environments than we do - as sources for tools.
The DOE said it was funding the work of more than 150 scientists with this new round of money.
They will be organized by three DOE labs - Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California, Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee and Sandia National Laboratories in New Mexico - as well as Harvard University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of Massachusetts.
Harvard and MIT said their joint $15 million, five-year grant would be used to study three bugs.
\"Prochlorococcus, a simple blue-green algae, is involved in 40 percent of the photosynthesis on Earth, removing from the atmosphere carbon dioxide - which is linked to global warming - and producing oxygen,\" they said in a statement.
\"Pseudomonas, while a member of a family of significant human pathogens, is also one of the most versatile biochemical factories on earth. It has more different chemical reactions that it can do than almost any other organism and could handle a variety of toxic waste,\" it added.
The third, Caulobacter, scavenges compounds, especially in low concentrations of water.
\"These microorganisms can be thought of as nano-machines,\" George Church of Harvard Medical School and MIT said in a statement. \"By knowing their genomes, as we do, we have a linear computer tape, or code, that in principle tells us how to assemble the machines, he added.
\"But we need to study the machines themselves, to move beyond a one-dimensional understanding to a three-dimensional view to learn how we can help the machine to do the right thing for humans and the ecosystem.\"
A team headed by Oak Ridge will look at another carbon-cycling bacterium and one that may be able to clean up metals from soil, while Sandia will oversee a team of public and private labs examining another carbon-eating bug called Synechococcus.
Story by Maggie Fox, Health and Science Correspond
REUTERS NEWS SERVICE
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