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News Evolutionary riddle: Bacterium requires rare earth element to survive

Article in 'News' Written by Arul Prakash Published Nov 13, 2013

  1. Methylacidiphilum fumariolicum an extremely acidophilic methanotrophic microbe grows in the hot pools near volcanoes and has become the first organism to be discovered which required the rare earth element Cerium to thrive, as it depends on the rare earth element for an important enzyme reaction.

    Even though the bacterium was discovered back in 2007 by Huub Op den Camp, a microbiologist from Radboud University, it was Thomas Barends, a biochemist from Max Planck Institute from Medical Research through a publication on the Environmental Microbiology journal revealed the incredible finding.


    Dr.Thomas Barends studied the bacterium to find that it couldn't thrive in standard growth medium as it as well as it could in it's habitat. To better understand this phenomenon he decided to study methanol dehydrogenase (MDH), vital enzyme in methane cycle.

    It was found that the enzyme receptor didn't use the usual calcium. So, the scientists decided to do a computer simulation to find the element that could fit in the enzyme receptor. Elements that were prominent in the pools that contained the bacterium were chosen for the simulation.

    "Cerium", a rare earth element, was a perfect fit, the computer simulation results were confirmed when scientists grew the microbe with Cerium and they also found that it thrived equally well on a diet several rare earth elements such as lanthanum, cerium, praseodymium or neodymium.

    Cerium is the planet’s most abundant rare earth element but one never previously found in an enzyme. “I thought, ‘no way, that never happens in biology,’” Barends says. But he put it into his model and it worked.

    This finding has certainly rekindled interest in microbes using rare earth metals as it answers more questions in evolutionary riddle.

    Further reading: Rare earth metals are essential for methanotrophic life in volcanic mudpots
    Arjan Pol, Thomas R. M. Barends, Andreas Diet, Ahmad F. Khadem,J elle Eygensteyn, Mike S. M. Jetten, Huub J. M. Op den Camp
    • Arul Prakash

      Article by Arul Prakash

      Editor and founder of BiotechCareer.Org. He is an Industrial Biotechnologists and also a web developer, gooner, blogger, and foodie.

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