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Newly discovered bacteria may enable photosynthetic biofuel production

A bacterium found in the remote Gobi Desert may become a valuable partner for researchers working with biofuels.

The bacterium has shown talents for using the sun's light as energy and now researchers have revealed that it can be found in surprisingly many different places, including water treatment plants.

To date, species capable of performing photosynthesis have been reported in six bacterial phyla, and recently researchers have reported that the talent can be observed in a species belonging to the rare and understudied phylum Gemmatimonadetes.

The investigated species was isolated from a freshwater lake in the Gobi Desert, which covers parts of China and Mongolia.

When the researchers studied the bacteria in the lab, they were surprised to discover that the genes responsible for the photosynthesis are ordered in a cluster rather than scattered in the whole genome, which makes it possible to remove the gene cluster.

Using sunlight to produce biofuel

"This is highly interesting because it allows you to transfer the gene cluster to another bacterium that can use the genes for a desired purpose,” said Yonghui Zeng of the Nordic Center for Earth Evolution at the University of Southern Denmark (USD).

“An example is to transfer the gene cluster to the bacterium E. coli and thus make E. coli capable of using sunlight to produce biofuel.”

The newly found bacterium gives a perfect example as how to turn a bacterium photosynthetic.

After Zeng and colleagues described the bacterium in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences last year, he set out to learn more about it.

A new paper in Environmental Microbiology Reports now describes the abundancy of the bacterium.

Also found in water treatment plants

With the help of computational biologist Jan Baumbach's group in the Department of Mathematics & Computer Science at USD, Zeng trawled a large number of databases and learned that the bacterium can be found almost everywhere, especially in soil and in water treatment plants.

It cannot, however, be found in marine environments.

"Now we know that this bacterium has a talent for photosynthesis, we know it is abundant and we know that the relevant genes can easily be transferred to other organisms. That makes it very relevant for future work with focus on, i.e., figuring out a way to turn the biotechnology workhorse E. coli photosynthetic and thus capable of producing biofuels in a more economic way", said Zeng.