Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:


Rare earths in bacteria

Methane-decomposing bacteria from hot springs need the valuable metals to produce energy

Rare earths are among the most precious raw materials of all. These metals are used in mobile telephones, display screens and computers. And they are apparently indispensable for some organisms as well.

The methanol dehydrogenase of the bacterium Methylacidiphilum fumariolicum uses the rare earths metal cerium (Ce) as co-factor.
© MPI f. Medical Research/Barends

A team of researchers, including scientists from the Max Planck Institute for Medical Research in Heidelberg, has discovered a bacterium which needs rare earths to grow - in a hot spring. Methylacidiphilum fumariolicum requires lanthanum, cerium, praseodymium or neodymium as co-factor for the enzyme methanol dehydrogenase, with which the microbes produce their energy. The use of rare earths is possibly more widespread among bacteria than previously thought.

In reality, the 17 metals that belong to the group of rare earths are not rare at all. The Earth’s crust contains larger quantities of rare earths than of gold or platinum, for example. The problem is that the elements have a relatively even distribution, so that mining is economical in only a few places.

In living organisms, the rare earths really are rare, on the other hand. As they dissolve hardly at all in water, most organisms cannot use them for their metabolism. This makes their discovery in a mudpot of volcanic origin in the Solfatara crater in Italy all the more surprising. Microbiologists from the Radboud University in Nijmegen, the Netherlands, have found a microbe which cannot live without some of the rare earths. Methylacidiphilum fumariolicum belongs to a group of bacteria which have chosen an extremely inhospitable habitat: They thrive best at a pH value of between 2 and 5 and temperatures of between 50 and 60 degrees - conditions which are lethal for other organisms. Methylacidiphilum even tolerates pH values below 1, which corresponds to concentrated sulphuric acid.

The microbes produce their energy from methane. They have a special enzyme, methanol dehydrogenase, which processes the methanol produced in the decomposition of methane with the aid of metal co-factors. Most of these bacteria use calcium for this process.

In the course of their investigations, the Nijmegen researchers noticed that Methylacidiphilum thrives only with original water from the mudpot. None of the trace elements which the researchers added to the Petri dishes encouraged the bacteria to grow. An analysis of the water showed that it contained concentrations of rare earths that were one hundred to one thousand times higher than normal.

Thomas Barends and Andreas Dietl from the Max Planck Institute for Medical Research investigated the three-dimensional structure of methanol dehydrogenase. They thereby noticed that Methylacidiphilum fumariolicum had inserted not calcium, but an atom of a different metal in its methanol dehydrogenase.

“Suddenly, everything fit together,” explains Thomas Barends. “We were able to show that this mysterious atom must be a rare earth. This is the first time ever that rare earths have been found to have such a biological function.” Methylacidiphilum uses the rare earths lanthanum, cerium, praseodymium and neodymium in its methanol dehydrogenase instead of calcium. The bacterium needs them to produce energy from methane.

The rare earths have a slightly larger ion radius than calcium, but can still replace it as a co-factor of enzymes. “Individual amino acids have been exchanged in the amino acid chain of the methanol dehydrogenase of the bacterium. This creates more room for the metals,” says Barends. In addition, Methylacidiphilum digests a larger quantity of rare earths than it needs to survive. It is therefore possible that it stores the metals in the cell.

Genome and proteome analyses suggest that the Methylacidiphilum version of methanol dehydrogenase is widespread among bacteria from coastal waters. Scientists have also discovered methane-exploiting bacteria equipped with this on the leaf surface of plants. Plants can enrich rare earths and thus safeguard the supply for the bacteria. “These bacteria are possibly present anywhere there is a sufficient supply of sand, as sand is an almost inexhaustible source of rare earths,” says Barends.


Dr. Thomas Barends
Max Planck Institute for Medical Research, Heidelberg
Phone: +49 6221 486-508
Email: thomas.barends@­
Dr. John Wray
Max Planck Institute for Medical Research, Heidelberg
Phone: +49 6221 486-277
Fax: +49 6221 486-351
Email: wray@­
Original publication
Arjan Pol, Thomas R. M. Barends, Andreas Dietl, Ahmad F. Khadem, Jelle Eygensteyn, Mike S. M. Jetten, and Huub J. M. Op den Camp
Rare earth metals are essential for methanotrophic life in volcanic mudpots
Environmental Microbiology, October 2013, doi:10.1111/1462-2920.12249

Dr. Thomas Barends | Max-Planck-Institute
Further information:

More articles from Studies and Analyses:

nachricht Diagnoses: When Are Several Opinions Better Than One?
19.07.2016 | Max-Planck-Institut für Bildungsforschung

nachricht High in calories and low in nutrients when adolescents share pictures of food online
07.04.2016 | University of Gothenburg

All articles from Studies and Analyses >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: Etching Microstructures with Lasers

Ultrafast lasers have introduced new possibilities in engraving ultrafine structures, and scientists are now also investigating how to use them to etch microstructures into thin glass. There are possible applications in analytics (lab on a chip) and especially in electronics and the consumer sector, where great interest has been shown.

This new method was born of a surprising phenomenon: irradiating glass in a particular way with an ultrafast laser has the effect of making the glass up to a...

Im Focus: Light-driven atomic rotations excite magnetic waves

Terahertz excitation of selected crystal vibrations leads to an effective magnetic field that drives coherent spin motion

Controlling functional properties by light is one of the grand goals in modern condensed matter physics and materials science. A new study now demonstrates how...

Im Focus: New 3-D wiring technique brings scalable quantum computers closer to reality

Researchers from the Institute for Quantum Computing (IQC) at the University of Waterloo led the development of a new extensible wiring technique capable of controlling superconducting quantum bits, representing a significant step towards to the realization of a scalable quantum computer.

"The quantum socket is a wiring method that uses three-dimensional wires based on spring-loaded pins to address individual qubits," said Jeremy Béjanin, a PhD...

Im Focus: Scientists develop a semiconductor nanocomposite material that moves in response to light

In a paper in Scientific Reports, a research team at Worcester Polytechnic Institute describes a novel light-activated phenomenon that could become the basis for applications as diverse as microscopic robotic grippers and more efficient solar cells.

A research team at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) has developed a revolutionary, light-activated semiconductor nanocomposite material that can be used...

Im Focus: Diamonds aren't forever: Sandia, Harvard team create first quantum computer bridge

By forcefully embedding two silicon atoms in a diamond matrix, Sandia researchers have demonstrated for the first time on a single chip all the components needed to create a quantum bridge to link quantum computers together.

"People have already built small quantum computers," says Sandia researcher Ryan Camacho. "Maybe the first useful one won't be a single giant quantum computer...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>



Event News

#IC2S2: When Social Science meets Computer Science - GESIS will host the IC2S2 conference 2017

14.10.2016 | Event News

Agricultural Trade Developments and Potentials in Central Asia and the South Caucasus

14.10.2016 | Event News

World Health Summit – Day Three: A Call to Action

12.10.2016 | Event News

Latest News

Ice shelf vibrations cause unusual waves in Antarctic atmosphere

25.10.2016 | Earth Sciences

Fluorescent holography: Upending the world of biological imaging

25.10.2016 | Power and Electrical Engineering

Etching Microstructures with Lasers

25.10.2016 | Process Engineering

More VideoLinks >>>