Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:

 

Rare earths in bacteria

31.10.2013
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.

Contact

Dr. Thomas Barends
Max Planck Institute for Medical Research, Heidelberg
Phone: +49 6221 486-508
Email: thomas.barends@­mpimf-heidelberg.mpg.de
Dr. John Wray
Max Planck Institute for Medical Research, Heidelberg
Phone: +49 6221 486-277
Fax: +49 6221 486-351
Email: wray@­mpimf-heidelberg.mpg.de
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:
http://www.mpg.de/7591932/rare-earths-bacteria

More articles from Studies and Analyses:

nachricht Win-win strategies for climate and food security
02.10.2017 | International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA)

nachricht The personality factor: How to foster the sharing of research data
06.09.2017 | ZBW – Leibniz-Informationszentrum Wirtschaft

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: Salmonella as a tumour medication

HZI researchers developed a bacterial strain that can be used in cancer therapy

Salmonellae are dangerous pathogens that enter the body via contaminated food and can cause severe infections. But these bacteria are also known to target...

Im Focus: Neutron star merger directly observed for the first time

University of Maryland researchers contribute to historic detection of gravitational waves and light created by event

On August 17, 2017, at 12:41:04 UTC, scientists made the first direct observation of a merger between two neutron stars--the dense, collapsed cores that remain...

Im Focus: Breaking: the first light from two neutron stars merging

Seven new papers describe the first-ever detection of light from a gravitational wave source. The event, caused by two neutron stars colliding and merging together, was dubbed GW170817 because it sent ripples through space-time that reached Earth on 2017 August 17. Around the world, hundreds of excited astronomers mobilized quickly and were able to observe the event using numerous telescopes, providing a wealth of new data.

Previous detections of gravitational waves have all involved the merger of two black holes, a feat that won the 2017 Nobel Prize in Physics earlier this month....

Im Focus: Smart sensors for efficient processes

Material defects in end products can quickly result in failures in many areas of industry, and have a massive impact on the safe use of their products. This is why, in the field of quality assurance, intelligent, nondestructive sensor systems play a key role. They allow testing components and parts in a rapid and cost-efficient manner without destroying the actual product or changing its surface. Experts from the Fraunhofer IZFP in Saarbrücken will be presenting two exhibits at the Blechexpo in Stuttgart from 7–10 November 2017 that allow fast, reliable, and automated characterization of materials and detection of defects (Hall 5, Booth 5306).

When quality testing uses time-consuming destructive test methods, it can result in enormous costs due to damaging or destroying the products. And given that...

Im Focus: Cold molecules on collision course

Using a new cooling technique MPQ scientists succeed at observing collisions in a dense beam of cold and slow dipolar molecules.

How do chemical reactions proceed at extremely low temperatures? The answer requires the investigation of molecular samples that are cold, dense, and slow at...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>

Anzeige

Anzeige

Event News

3rd Symposium on Driving Simulation

23.10.2017 | Event News

ASEAN Member States discuss the future role of renewable energy

17.10.2017 | Event News

World Health Summit 2017: International experts set the course for the future of Global Health

10.10.2017 | Event News

 
Latest News

Microfluidics probe 'cholesterol' of the oil industry

23.10.2017 | Life Sciences

Gamma rays will reach beyond the limits of light

23.10.2017 | Physics and Astronomy

The end of pneumonia? New vaccine offers hope

23.10.2017 | Health and Medicine

VideoLinks
B2B-VideoLinks
More VideoLinks >>>