Chinese scientists publishing in this week's Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences have sequenced and characterized the genome and partial proteome of Geobacillus thermodenitrificans NG80-2, a heat-tolerant bacterium isolated from a deep oil reservoir in
Bo-ring. Why should we care? Well, the bacteria can subsist entirely on crude oil, able to break down oil's long-chain alkanes into smaller molecules that they then use as food. This isn't news—scientists previously knew that this strain of bacteria could break down long-chain alkanes—but what these scientists discovered by studying their genome is that they should be able to survive well in, say, oil-contaminated environments, which are frequently warm, starved of oxygen, and contain high levels of toxic hydrocarbons, antimicrobial agents and heavy metals. G. thermodenitrificans appear to have excellent systems to deal with these potential problems, including good nutrient uptake and detoxification systems, tolerance to heat, and the ability to utilize both aerobic and anerobic respiration. They should be more than happy to veg out in oil reservoirs and environments contaminated by oil spills, breaking down and digesting the nasty stuff.
The scientists also isolated and characterized the enzyme that breaks down long-chain alkanes, naming it ladA. This introduces the possibility of being able to manipulate or utilize the single protein—rather than the whole bacterium— for oil clean-up. And since these bacteria are heat-stable, they could also someday be the source of other useful heat-stable enzymes. Lord knows Taq changed our lives.