Unconventional Environments Harbor Bacteria with "Extremozymes"
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Organisms living in extreme environments -- hot springs, frozen antarctic waters, alpine summits, desert sands, and other unusual "habitats," such as airplane fuel tanks -- are the subject of an article in the July issue of the journal BIO/TECHNOLOGY. The article is an outgrowth of a workshop sponsored by the National Science Foundation on May 25 and 26, 1994 in Washington, D.C.
Researchers have become interested in bacteria inhabiting extreme environments because they produce specialized enzymes, dubbed extremozymes, which are useful as biocatalysts, biological substances that increase the rates of chemical reactions. Enzymes are the movers-and shakers inside an organism; powerful proteins, they bring molecules together to produce the chemical reactions essential to life. The study of organisms in unusual ecosystems has shown scientists that biocatalysis is indeed alive and well in unconventional environments.
Says Marcia Steinberg, program director in NSF's molecular biochemistry program, "Extremozymes function at extremes of pH, temperature, pressure, salt, and solvent conditions. Last year's workshop brought together representatives from academia, industry, and government to discuss new developments in research on and potential uses for these novel enzymes. The article in BIO/TECHNOLOGY details their findings."
Write authors Michael Adams of the University of Georgia, Francine Perler of New England Biolabs, and Robert Kelly of North Carolina State University, "The study of enzymes isolated from organisms inhabiting unconventional ecosystems has led to the realization that biocatalysis need not be constrained to mild conditions and can be considered in environments long thought to be destructive to biomolecules."
Given the information acquired from the study of extremozymes, modification of enzymes to improve their ranges of stability and activity remains a possibility, write the scientists. "Ultimately, by expanding the range of conditions suitable for enzyme function, new opportunities to use biocatalysis will be created." Those opportunities include everything from developments in industrial enzymes and solvent engineering, to refinements in pulp and paper manufacturing and hydraulic fracturing of gas and oil wells, to studies of our planet's biodiversity.
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