Genome Studies Reveal Bacteria Can Heal Us, Wash Clothes and Mop Up Toxins

Article excerpt

ONE might ask how it is that we commit an entire organisation to providing public education about genomes. Or how much and for how long we can milk this cow, you might really mean to say.

Technically for ever, because there are millions of organisms to sequence, establishing the biochemical ordering of their DNA or RNA.

So far 180 organisms have been sequenced, including modern human beings, chimpanzees, dogs, cats, insects, worms, plants, protozoa, yeasts, bacteria and ancient archeabacteria. The harvest of information has been magnificent, and enriches our understanding of life.

Some of the information can be used for health applications and has as a result great public benefit. Take for example the bacterium that goes by the long name of Saccharopolyspora erythraea. Sequenced by companies Aventis Bulk and MWG Biotech, it produces an antibiotic that is used to treat pneumonia and bronchitis.

There is Streptomyces coelicolor, one of medicine's most important microbes. Sequenced by Cambridge's Sanger Institute, this bacterium and its relatives produce most of the natural antibiotics in use today, including tetracycline and erythromycin. This bacterial family also produces compounds that have anti-cancer properties.

I must mention Streptococcus agalactiae, a bacterium that can cause life-threatening infections in newborns as they pass through the birth canal. It also preys on adults who have chronic diseases. Sequenced by the Institute for Genomic Research, Group B Strep, as it is known, came from cows and jumped at some time to humans.

And finally, when it comes to health applications, you may have heard of Ashbya gossypii, a fungus that attacks cotton and some citrus fruits. Sequenced by Switzerland's Biozentrum der Universitat Basel, this organism also produces vitamin B2, and some companies use it to manufacture vitamins.

You would be interested to know, too, of the many industrial applications there are for bacterial genomes. The commercialisation of genetic knowledge is making many individuals very wealthy. I have been struck by how many genome sequences of oceanic bacteria are used to make laundry detergents, for example.

There is Oceanobacillus iheyensis, a bacterium that lives in extreme environments. Sequenced by the Japan Marine Science and Technology Centre, scientists found it in mud, and discovered that it has enzymes that could be potentially used as additives in laundry detergents. …