Methanotropic bacteria, which get all their energy from gobbling climate-busting methane, could some day become a tool to fight climate change on a massive scale while scouring up some heavy metals along the way, based on new research led by Northwestern University molecular bioscientist and chemist Amy C. Rosenzweig.
“Methanotrophic bacteria, or more simply ‘methanotrophs,’ take copper from the environment to install into the molecular machinery that metabolizes methane, turning it into methanol for food,” Northwestern News reports. “To acquire copper, many methanotrophs secrete a chemically-modified peptide called methanobactin, which tightly binds to copper ions to pull them into the cell.”
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Prior to Rosenzweig’s research, published late last month in the journal Science, “the cellular machinery that drives the formation of methanobactin has been little understood,” the university newsletter notes. But in a groundbreaking study, Rosenzweig’s team discovered that a methanotroph cell is home to two previously unknown proteins—MbnB and MbnC—that are “partially responsible” for the production of the copper-recruiting methanobactin.
The discovery “makes it easier for researchers to study methanobactin, because they can work with the proteins in test tubes rather than manipulate entire living microorganisms,” Northwestern notes. And that, in turn, makes it easier for researchers to “bring the world closer to methanotrophs’ promising applications,” like “using filters constructed from the bacteria to scrub methane out of the atmosphere, or to help remove methane from natural gas reserves.”