Another day, another genome sequenced

The final showdown: Russian hot spring microbes vs. peak oil.

By Andrew Leonard
April 17, 2006 9:45PM (UTC)
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Imagine a microbe that feeds on carbon monoxide and produces two waste products: hydrogen and carbon dioxide. And imagine that the carbon dioxide is converted to organic compounds by the microbe and never released into the atmosphere. Voilà! A miracle organism, potentially generating clean hydrogen gas for our future energy needs.

It's Monday morning, and we're feeling a little optimistic about the future at How the World Works today, so we're willing to hope that the magic of modern science will help solve some of the great challenges that face us. However, we're also a little laggard, so we're only just now getting around (thanks to an Energy Bulletin link) to a report announcing the sequencing of the genome of Carboxydothermus hydrogenoformans, a microbe that lives in Russian hot springs and has the above-mentioned amazing qualities.


A good, layman-comprehensible explanation of how the microbe pulls off its legerdemain can be found at Science Daily. The research was conducted by scientists at the Institute for Genomic Research, a nonprofit research institution that has deciphered the genomes to more than 50 different microbes, including, says TIGR's Web site, "pathogens that cause some of the deadliest diseases, including malaria, pneumonia, tuberculosis, syphilis, amoebic dysentery, Lyme disease, anthrax, meningitis, African sleeping sickness, Chagas disease, filariasis and trichimoniasis" and "species that play critical roles in global nutrient and energy cycling and offer the promise of breakthroughs in the areas of bioremediation and energy production."

The stunning advance of genomic science over the last 15 years, with the full details of the genetic structures of organism after organism successfully decoded, is a revolution whose implications have only begun to trickle in. But we should be expecting a flood. A true test of scientific progress will come this century: Will we make use of our vast knowledge of how the natural world is constructed to help us fix the damage that we are doing to it, or are we setting ourselves up for even greater horrors?

It's Monday morning and the sun is shining after months of rain in Northern California, so today we're going to believe in microbes that pump out hydrogen, algae that eats greenhouse gas emissions and can be harvested for biofuels, bacteria that clean up toxic waste, and rice strains that can survive global warming. Bring on the Russian hot spring critters!

Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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