Learning from Nature

Earth day image
Image Credit: Beautiful Earth Day 2018 logo from Laupahoehoe Community Public Charter School, in Laupahoehoe, HI. 

Happy Earth Day everyone! For this week’s blog, let’s take a look at how resilient Mother Nature is. With every troubling toxin, corrosive chemical and petroleum product we pollute her with, she finds new ways to come back into balance. Here’s what we’ve learned from nature recently:

Oil-eating Bacteria – For decades, scientists have been looking for bacteria and other microorganisms to find the perfect strain which can metabolism hydrocarbons found in oil and petroleum wastes. Researchers at Institut national de la recherche scientifique (INRS) in France have found a marine bacterium that may be able to do just that. Early research shows that enzymes isolated from Alcanivorax borkumensis have been able to break down many chemicals found in petroleum contaminated soils, including harsh chemicals such as benzene, toluene, and xylene. Professor Satinder Kaur Brar at the Environmental Biotechnology Laboratory stated, “the degradation of hydrocarbons using the crude enzyme extract is really encouraging and reached over 80 percent for various compounds.”  The team intends to extend their work and see if this bacterium is capable of decontaminating waste sites.

Mutant Enzyme that Eats Plastic? – Researchers from the University of Portsmouth in the UK and the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) have been able to “tweak” the structure of an enzyme in a recently discovered bacterium, Ideonella sakaiensis, to enhance its ability to digest PET (polyethylene terephthalate). PET is the same material used to manufacture plastic bottles that are clogging up landfills and oceans around the world. Researchers modified the enzyme, called PETase, with additional amino acids. The new enzyme is capable of breaking down PET in just a few days. The hope is the new enzyme may help reduce our world’s escalating plastic crisis.

Plants, Fungi and Bacteria Unite! – Can organisms of different species “talk” to each other?  That may be one way of explaining the “highly complex interactions among roots, fungi and bacteria” which enable some trees to clean polluted land. Bioinformatics and plant-biology experts from McGill University and Université de Montréal discovered new genetic evidence which suggests willow trees, fungi and bacteria symbiotically take care of each other’s physical needs in a petroleum polluted environment. Specifically, willow trees “may tolerate pollution by providing sugars to symbiotic fungi surrounding their roots; the fungi, in turn, provide nutrients to hydrocarbon-degrading bacteria.” Scientists are hoping this cross-disciplinary collaboration may lead to the discovery of other “incredibly intricate solutions (to problems) present in the natural world.”

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