For decades, scientists have wondered how living organisms manufacture the essential vitamin B12. Now, using laundry whitener and dirt-dwelling bacteria—the everyday ingredients of an undergraduate science experiment—researchers may have found the major clue they need to solve the mystery.
Under ultraviolet light in a Petri dish containing laundry whitener, symbiotic bacteria with a mutant bluB gene (lower right) fluoresce brightly, while the same bacteria with no mutation only glow slightly (top right), and bacteria with another mutation (in the exoY gene) are completely dark.
Researchers led by Graham Walker, a Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) professor and American Cancer Society research professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, have discovered the first known mutant bacteria with a specific defect in a gene involved in the least-understood part of B12 synthesis. They report their findings in the early online edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, published February 20, 2006. HHMI professors are leading research scientists who received $1 million grants from the Institute to find ways to bring the excitement of the research lab into undergraduate science classrooms.
In the ancient world, B12 was probably catalyzing reactions before cells even existed. Now, all animals need B12 to help make the building blocks of DNA, and children need enough of the vitamin to help their brain develop normally. Most people consume enough B12 through animal products or fortified foods in their diet. On the other hand, animals that do not eat other animal products acquire the nutrient from bacteria in their guts or from bacteria-infected dirt on their plant food. An estimated one-quarter of people older than 60 in this country have trouble absorbing B12. B12 deficiency can lead to nerve damage, anemia, and forgetfulness.
Jennifer Donovan | EurekAlert!
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