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Metal Eating Bacteria- New Species Discovered Accidentally

Caltech microbiologists recently discovered bacteria that feed on manganese. These bacteria use the metal as their source of calories. The study further revealed that the bacteria use manganese to convert CO2 into biomass. This process is called chemosynthesis.

Bacteria are older than dirt! They are present on this planet since 3.8 billion years. Hence, they are the oldest know life form on Earth. A bacterium (singular form of bacteria) can move up to 100 times its body length in a second. They are pretty fast indeed. These microscopic organisms never seize to surprise us.  Accidentally, a new species of metal- eating bacteria has been discovered. This is a very surprising statement in itself as the tiny organisms can even consume metal!

 

Metal Eating Bacteria Discovered!

Caltech microbiologists recently discovered bacteria that feed on manganese. These bacteria use the metal as their source of calories. Such microbes were predicted to exist over a century ago. But none of these were found or described until now. “These are the first bacteria found to use manganese as their source of fuel,” says Jared Leadbetter, a renowned professor of environmental microbiology at Caltech.  “A wonderful aspect of microbes in nature is that they can metabolize seemingly unlikely materials, like metals, yielding energy useful to the cell.” He further added.

The study further revealed that the bacteria use manganese to convert CO2 into biomass. This process is called chemosynthesis.

Earlier, researchers were familiar with some of the species of bacteria and fungi that could oxidize manganese. These were able to strip off electrons from the manganese atom but weren’t able to harness the power for driving growth. But the new species discovered can do just that.

 

The Story of This Accidental Discovery

Leadbetter found the bacteria accidentally after performing unrelated experiments. For the said experiment, he used a light and chalk-like form of manganese. In fact, he left a glass jar soiled with the substance to soak in tap water in his Caltech office sink before departing for several months to work off campus. When he returned, he found that the jar was coated with a dark material.

“I thought, ‘What is that?'” he expressed his surprise. “I started to wonder if long-sought-after microbes might be responsible, so we systematically performed tests to figure that out.” He added.

Upon further testing, they inferred that the black coating was actually oxidized manganese. The newfound bacteria that most likely came from the tap water itself generated this substance. Further evidences indicate that the relatives of these bacteria also reside in the groundwater and even pumped out when groundwater is utilized as drinking water.

 

How Are the Metal-Eating Bacteria Beneficial?

This finding will help researchers in better understanding the geochemistry of groundwater. It is already known that bacteria can degrade pollutants in groundwater. This happens through a process called bio-remediation. When doing this, various key organisms will “reduce” manganese oxide. This means that they donate electrons to it. This is very similar to how humans use oxygen in the air. Scientists have wondered where the manganese oxide comes from in the first place.

“The bacteria we have discovered can produce manganese oxide. So they enjoy a lifestyle that also serves to supply the other microbes with what they need to perform reactions that we consider to be beneficial and desirable,” Leadbetter further explained.

The research findings will also aid in understanding the manganese nodules that dot much of the ocean floor. These nodules are round metallic balls and can be as large as a grapefruit. These were known to researchers since the 1870’s but their origin is still not known. Hopefully, the newly found metal-eating bacteria will help in solving this mystery.

Furthermore, Leadbetter stated that these bacteria will also fill up the intellectual gap in the understanding of Earth’s elemental cycles. The discovery will add to the diverse ways in which manganese, a transition metal, shaped our planet.

Reference

Yu, H., Leadbetter, J.R. Bacterial chemolithoautotrophy via manganese oxidation. Nature 583, 453–458 (2020).

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