Chemists at Emory University have made an important advance in harnessing the ability of bacteria to make new molecules, and their discovery could eventually lead to the creation of naturally decaffeinated coffee plants. The research, by Emory chemist Justin Gallivan and graduate student Shawn Desai, is scheduled to appear in the Oct. 27 edition of the Journal of the American Chemical Society.
Bacteria are terrific chemists, but they normally synthesize only molecules they need for their own survival, says Gallivan. His research team is interested in making bacteria synthesize molecules that they would otherwise not make on their own, resulting in molecules that may someday benefit humans. The Emory team reasoned that if a bacterium needs a particular molecule to survive, it has a strong incentive to help make it, so the goal was to make bacteria depend on a molecule that they wouldnt normally need.
In their first major breakthrough, the Emory researchers have coupled the life of a bacterium to the presence of theophylline, a compound that is used to treat asthma, and is produced by the breakdown of caffeine in both coffee and tea plants. One of the reasons that coffee has a high level of caffeine is that in the plant, caffeine is synthesized very quickly, but breaks down to theophylline very slowly.
Beverly Cox Clark | EurekAlert!
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