Tag Archives: microbes

Bacterial bail-out for Deepwater methane

Well, that’s one less thing to worry about. The Deepwater Horizon oil-well crisis released a whole lot of hydrocarbons into the environment, the most obvious (and destructive) of which was the oil itself. A whole lot of methane got out too, which was something of a worry; we’ve more than enough greenhouse gases to be going on with as it is. But the bulk of the methane released – assuming the estimates of volume were right, anyway – appears to have been eaten up by ocean-going microbes:

Methane is thought to account for 30% by weight of the output from BP’s blown-out well, and was a major component of a vast plume of oil and gas that formed about 1,000 metres deep.

However, contrary to the expectations of the lead researcher in the new study, John Kessler, an oceanographer at Texas A&M University, that the methane would linger for years, nearly all of the gas was consumed by microbes within 120 days of the blow-out.

By the time Kessler and his team returned for the second of their three research missions to the Gulf on 18 August, the methane had been scrubbed.

“All of that evidence had pointed to a much longer lifetime of methane in deepwater plumes with a lifespan possibly as long as years,” he said. “It was quite surprising.”

Readings on methane and oxygen levels at 207 stations indicated a massive “bloom” of methane-eating underwater bacteria sometime between the end of June and the beginning of August. “It likely occurred after affected waters had flowed away from the wellhead,” the study said.

A silver lining to a decidedly dark cloud, there. Someone should get to researching those little beasties quickly; it’d be nice to have some sort of tool to deal with the potential planetary-scale farting that melting permafrost might produce. And who knows – with a bit of bioengineering, perhaps they could be made to convert that methane into something useful.

Cheese: Now with artistic expression

hello-kittyAs if to answer the call for more cheese-based sfnal items:

Cheese made with breast milk has been served at the launch of a new art exhibition in London.

The Alejandra Ortiz-Reynoso show is named after the woman who donated the main ingredient. Artist Raul Ortega Ayala wants to “explore our first encounter with food.” ABC News reports that the cheese was served on crackers, and that the milk was donated voluntarily.

Hello Kitty Cream Cheese Head by Slack-a-gogo.

Seeing around cells: The microscopic periscope

periscopeBiologists almost never see the sides of cells. Traditional microscopes only show them the top. Now, though, Vanderbilt scientists have created what’s being called “the world’s smallest periscope”:

The researchers have dubbed their devices “mirrored pyramidal wells.” As the name implies, they consist of pyramidal-shaped cavities molded into silicon whose interior surfaces are coated with a reflective layer of gold or platinum. They are microscopic in dimension – about the width of a human hair – and can be made in a range of sizes to view different-sized objects. When a cell is placed in such a well and viewed with a regular optical microscope, the researcher can see several sides simultaneously.

This low-cost 3D microscopic technique could become standard practice, and become as common as the traditional slide. If only somebody could tell Stephen Boyd or Edmond O’Brien.

A sunflower pollen grain from five vantage points, PhyOrg.

Conducting bacteria that feed off garbage to produce power

Is rubbish going to become too valuable to be piled up like this?Whilst some of first generation biofuels like corn and soy based ethanol are proving to be more trouble than their worth, scientists are working hard on second and third generation alternatives that should add to our energy mix without damaging our food supply. One new development is microbial fuel cells (MFCs) – bacteria that breaks down garbage and conducts electricity. Scientists think by digesting our waste these cells could replace up to 25% of the fuels we currently use.

In a microbial fuel cell, the bacteria acts on the anode of the circuit, breaking down waste with oxidation. As a byproduct they produce electrons. Normally a bacteria would transfer these electrons to a nearby oxygen molecule but if the fuel cell has no oxygen in it, the microbe must move these electrons elsewhere and an MFC uses this to drive an electrical current.

Researchers are beginning to make headway in creating self-contained microbial fuel cells. Biofilms are bacteria that create matrices of material to attach themselves to the anode. This mix of sugars, proteins and cells is thought to contain tiny conducting nanowires that help move the electrons into the electrical circuit, making the whole clump of bacteria act like a big living anode. If this works, people aren’t going to be leaving their litter on the streets any longer. It’ll be too valuable!

[via Daily Galaxy, picture by Alan Stanton]

Of Mice, Men, Women, Children, and Bacteria: Are Microbiota Linked to Obesity?

fatmouseThis isn’t likely to let us off the hook for diet and exercise. But reseachers at Mayo Clinic Arizona and Arizona State University’s Biodesign Institute say the trillions of bacteria in your gut may play a role in regulating your weight. Mice that lack certain bugs tend to be fatter than their germ-free laboratory counterparts, and exposing lab mice to the germs makes them fatter. How much they eat, and how often they hit the exercise wheel, don’t seem to have an impact.

What about people? One study of children from birth to age 7 found:

The children who were normal weight at age 7 had distinctly different bacteria in their [stool] samples than those collected from overweight-obese children, suggesting that differences in the composition of the gut microbiota precede overweight-obesity.

The usual caveats apply: The bacteria/obesity connection has yet to be proved, and more research is needed before this leads to obesity treatments. SFnal scenarios about genetic engineering, nanotech, weight regulation, or gypsy curses are good to go.

[Illustration: deletem3]