Scientists Succeed in Growing ’Uncultivable’ Microorganisms

Of the estimated 10,000 to 100,000 microbial species that inhabit our planet, scientists can only coax a few thousand to grow in the laboratory. As a result, efforts to categorize the vast diversity of microbes are lagging far behind attempts to classify plants, animals and insects. Now a report published in the current issue of the journal Science suggests that some of these so-called uncultivable microorganisms might not be so out of reach after all.

Tammi Kaeberlein, Kim Lewis and Klava Epstein of Northeastern University succeeded in growing pure cultures of elusive beach-growing bacteria by recreating their shore environment in the lab. The scientists collected blocks of beach and separated the microorganisms that reside on the sandy surface into sealed chambers, which were then set atop the sediment blocks inside aquariums. Though chemicals and nutrients could enter the chambers, the bacteria remained trapped. The novel experimental set-up garnered a nearly 300 percent increase in the number of microorganisms that produced colonies as compared with results achieved in conventional petri dishes. Moreover, the team isolated two previously unknown microbes, dubbed MSC1 and MSC2, and is analyzing nine others.

MSC1 (see image) and MSC2 also provided clues as to why some microorganisms refuse to grow in a stark laboratory dish even when ample nutrients are provided. The researchers discovered that culturing MSC1 and MSC2 in the specially designed chambers was easy but the bacteria would only grow in a petri dish if both strains were present. Because bacteria can use chemicals known as pheromones to communicate, the authors conclude that “it seems possible that microorganisms require specific signals originating from their neighbors that indicate the presence of a familiar environment.”

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Sarah Graham American Scientist

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