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Scientists say a new bacteria species discovered in Yellowstone’s thermal pools could improve the use of bacteria to produce ethanol.
Researchers found the bacteria in Octopus and Mushroom springs as well as in Green Finger Pool. The bacteria thrive in hot water, growing best between 120 and 150 degrees.
The discovery is rare because the bacterium is photosynthesizing, meaning it produces energy from sunlight. Scientists have discovered just three similar bacteria species within the past century, according to Don Bryant, a professor of biotechnology, biochemistry and molecular biology at Penn State University and leader of the research team.
Bryant published the discovery in the July issue of Science.
“Among microbiologists, this would be considered a big deal,” Bryant said.
He speculated that the bacteria could be used by researchers who are looking for new ways to use bacteria to produce ethanol, which can be burned like gasoline.
The bacteria, he said, likely obtain carbon not from the atmosphere, but by removing the waste of other bacteria. That could help other types of bacteria to grow more quickly.
“It’s not really all that complicated to get a little more bang for your buck,” he said.
The researchers discovered the species by examining DNA information gathered by David Ward, a Montana State University researcher who has spend decades investigating the mats of bacteria common in Yellowstone’s thermal features. Such bacteria are called thermophilic for their ability to thrive where it’s hot.
Bryant said he sifted through hundreds of DNA sequences on a computer.
“We’re looking for signatures of genes that are distinctly different than anything that’s known,” he said.
After examining the DNA of the new bacteria, called Chloracidobacterium termophilum. Bryant then had to prove that the bacterium existed.
“A virtual organism, something that we had found only on a computer, is not something that can be publishable in Science,” he said.
“Most of the next year went in to trying to isolate the organism, finding out what properties it had, and demonstrating that it actually can convert light energy into chemical energy. It’s not whether you’ve got some gense, it’s how you’re using them.”
He eventually was able to isolate the bacterium.
“We got the proof that the organism that was growing on light energy,” he said. “We grew the organism repeatedly in light and dark. If you grow it in the dark, it grows much more slowly, if at all. If you grow it in light, it grows much faster.”