Magazine article Science News

Gene Tool May Crack Open Microbial Secrets

Magazine article Science News

Gene Tool May Crack Open Microbial Secrets

Article excerpt

In a world without microorganisms, dead trees would keep their carbon to themselves. Although the trees would still die, topple, break into small particles, and eventually be buried, they would not liberate this element, an essential building block of life. It takes methane-producing microbes like some archaea to turn carbon into methane gas, which they release into the atmosphere.

Scientists have now invented a genetic tool that may help them discover how archaea, a poorly understood form of life, accomplish this elemental task.

Last summer, researchers sequenced the entire genome of Methanococcus jannaschii, a methane-generating species of archaea living on the ocean floor (SN: 8/24/96, p. 116). That feat provided an inventory of the microbe's genetic instructions, but understanding of the inventory remains incomplete.

Of the reported 1,738 genes in M. jannaschii, only 44 percent resemble genes from known organisms other than archaea. The new tool, described in the March 18 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, will enable scientists to discover the functions of the unidentified genes in M. jannaschii and in a broad collection of other methane-producing archaea.

"We haven't really been able to get at a lot of how these organisms live and grow," says William W. Metcalf, a microbiologist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. "This is the first breakthrough that's going to help us do that."

Metcalf worked with colleagues at the University of Illinois and the University of Maryland at Baltimore to develop the new genetic tool, which he thinks will help researchers figure out how archaea convert carbon to methane. …

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