The Biosciences Area launched its Twitter account one year ago. @LBNLBioSci has served as a tool to disseminate the Area’s achievements in energy, environment and health. To celebrate the one year anniversary, the Biosciences communications team has released a listicle on seven of the Area’s bacterial, fungal and microbial discoveries.
So little is known about the full potential of bacteria, fungi and microbial communities. Scientists at Berkeley Lab’s Biosciences Area are helping understand more about these mysterious organisms and how they can help tackle challenges in energy, environment and health. Here are a few highlights of the many scientific discoveries by our divisions and institutes.
1. May the Microbes Be with You
JBEI scientists found that millions of years old microbial communities in the rainforest soil may hold clues to ways of breaking down plant biomass and converting them into biofuels. These microbes are able to decompose material quickly and completely. Who knew microbes had so much potential?!
Another mysterious ‘wild thing’ our scientists have looked at are basal fungi. Little is known about these organisms and genomics is a great way to understand their processes and potential. The DOE JGI characterized and compared the genome sequences of Mucoromycotina. This research shed light on the evolution of sensory perception in fungi. Understanding the mechanisms by which environmental cues are sensed could provide insights on how some fungi can change their growth patterns to act as pathogens rather than benign organisms.
3. Show Me Your Gut And I’ll Tell You Where Your Home Is
Scientists in the Biological Systems & Engineering Division in collaboration with the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory established that genes and early environment play a strong role in shaping the gut microbiome, which helps keep us healthy. That first dose of microbes we get, usually from our mothers, has a really strong influence in our lifetime in terms of determining our health.
How do plants and algae protect themselves from too much sunlight? It turns out that they have proteins designed to take excess light energy and dissipate it as heat to avoid damage. While studying photosynthesis in cyanobacteria (aquatic microbes), scientists in the Molecular Biophysics & Integrated Bioimaging Division found that this energy-quenching mechanism is triggered by structural changes in the Orange Carotenoid Protein. This information may be useful when creating efficient artificial photosynthesis mechanisms for harvesting solar energy and converting it to chemical energy.
Now it’s back to the tropical rain forest with JBEI. Researchers used a pair of genes discovered in a bacterium native to a rainforest in Puerto Rico to engineer E. coli that will tolerate the presence of ionic liquids. Ionic liquids used to make switchgrass digestible for E. coli are also toxic for the bacteria, and had to be removed through extensive washing. This discovery makes biofuel and chemical production more sustainable and feasible for industrial scale-up.
6. There’s Enough Food For All In The Biocrust Buffet
Turns out microbes have a link to the global carbon cycle. Confused? Don’t be. Scientists in the Environmental Genomics & Systems Biology Division have clarified things for us. In a nutshell, the carbon cycle is the process by which carbon moves from the atmosphere into the Earth (soil) and its organisms and then back again. Microbes are laying down on top layers of the soil forming a biocrust. Understanding the interactions between the microbes in the biocrust with their environments help us learn more about their role in the carbon cycle. Our scientists liken the biocrust to a big fancy buffet in which microbes eat different items on the menu, ensuring microbial and soil diversity.
7. Bacteria vs Fungi: Uneasy Bedfellows?
Actually, not always! These organisms are not necessarily antagonists. Researchers at the DOE JGI and Cornell University learned more about how bacteria and fungi live together in a relationship benefiting each other. Our researchers discovered that this symbiosis could have benefits to biodiesel production applications.