Toxic for most, an energy source for others – researchers discover microbes take advantage of carbon monoxide

Researchers discover microbes take advantage of carbon monoxide

Te Puia geothermal area, an example of a geothermal area where bacteria involved with these processes was sampled. (Credit: Zahra Islam).

A trans-Tasman research team led by Monash biologists has shown that dormant bacteria within extreme environments prolong their survival by breaking down the components of air.

The study focuses on two microbes from an understudied group called the Chloroflexi that were isolated from Yellowstone National Park and the geothermal soils of New Zealand. The researchers showed both have the capacity to use atmospheric concentrations of hydrogen and the carbon monoxide during periods of starvation.

With emissions of the highly toxic pollutant carbon monoxide increasing worldwide due to anthropogenic activities, one way in which the levels of this gas has been kept in check is through bacterial uptake.

"With this research, we’ve been able to show for the first time that dormant bacteria can subsist on atmospheric concentrations of carbon monoxide," said study first-author Zahra Islam, PhD student in Associate Professor Chris Greening's lab in the School of Biological Sciences at Monash University.

“While carbon monoxide is toxic to most organisms, these geothermal microbes don’t just tolerate it, they’re able to thrive on it.”

This multidisciplinary research, combining both next-generation sequencing and fundamental biochemistry approaches, has recently been published in the prestigious journal, the ISME (International Society for Microbial Ecology) Journal.

“This study provides us with evidence that there are breatharians out there; they just live in environments inhospitable to us,” said lead researcher Associate Professor Chris Greening from the School of Biological Sciences at Monash University.

The outcomes of this research adds yet another piece in the puzzle of how environmental bacteria survive in inhospitable environments, which is the focal point of Associate Professor Greening’s ARC DECRA Fellowship.

“This study reports only the third bacterial group capable of consuming atmospheric hydrogen to fuel their energy requirements during periods of starvation, and the first group of bacteria to use carbon monoxide for survival,” Associate Professor Greening said.

It appears that the ability of bacteria to flip their energy generation strategy is much more ecologically widespread than previously thought. They’ve previously shown this persistence strategy is vital for life in the freezing soils of Antarctica and now they’ve extended these findings to microbes in hot springs.

“The sheer extent of bacteria potentially capable of this phenomenon is redefining our knowledge of the minimal energy requirements necessary to sustain life."

The full paper can be read here.

Media queries:

To arrange an interview with Zahra Islam (+61425246393) or Associate Professor Chris Greening (+61451085339),
contact Silvia Dropulich, Marketing, Media & Communications Manager, Monash Science
T: +61 3 9902 4513 M: +61 (0) 0435138743