While biomanufacturing processes have improved in performance and complexity since the mid ‘70s, and the early days of companies like Genentech, scientists have remained diligent students of natural cellular processes, which efficiently produce all sorts of beneficial compounds for products like drugs and fuels. It was in this line of research that Princeton University scientists discovered recently a global genetic regulator that can activate many otherwise silent gene clusters in a bacterium. As described in a Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) publication, this finding could enable scientists to supercharge these microbes’ natural compound production capabilities.
You may or may not be a beer drinker or know much about the brewing industry as a whole but regardless of where you fall on those spectrums of familiarity, you’ll likely be surprised by the role bacteria were found to play in hurting the quality of beer in the United Kingdom, as reported in the Beer Quality Report 2017. Published by Cask Marque, a beer quality watchdog in the UK, the Beer Quality Report shares the results of research done in 22,000 pubs across the United Kingdom. Perhaps of note to the microbiology community is the report’s section on line cleaning.
As mundane as line cleaning sounds, the report projects that the economic value lost for a typical pub due to bacteria and yeast-laden draught beer lines is around $40,000 – no small sum for your average pub. What may be more disturbing to most beer drinkers is the finding that one in three pints served in the UK is drawn through unclean beer lines. That means that a third of the lines were found to have yeast and bacterial buildup to the extent that it hurt beer quality. Besides being unnerving, it’s worth noting that bacteria tend to spoil the aroma and flavor of beer, which ruins the experience for consumers, and is just bad for business.
Another interesting finding from the report is the breakdown of unclean beer lines by type of beer. For instance, cider lines were found to be the dirtiest in the UK on average, with 44 percent of inspected lines determined to be unclean. When beer type was combined with location, it was found that 53 percent of cider lines in Wales were determined to be unclean. The next most likely beer type to be drawn through dirty lines were stout beers, as the report found that 36 percent of those lines were found to be unclean. Premium and standard lagers were the next most likely lines to be unclean, with 35 percent and 36 percent of those lines found to be dirty, respectively.
Fortunately, beer is generally considered inhospitable to the majority of the microorganisms, as the low pH and ethanol concentration effectively limit bacterial growth. As a result, there are only a few known bacterial strains that are able to grow under these conditions. Nonetheless, these types of reports illustrate the importance of understanding microbes and their potential to affect every aspect of daily life. As the Beer Quality Report 2017 shows, microbes even play a significant role in economic success and consumer satisfaction. Not bad for being microscopic.
Fertilizer is a staple of industrial farming, as it primes the soil for optimal plant growth. The industrial process for making fertilizer was dreamt up more than 100 years ago by two chemists, named Haber and Bosch, and it’s the same intensive process that allows fertilizer to be produced at commercial quantities that also puts it out of reach for the world’s poorest farmers. Specifically, the production process, which requires huge chemical plants to transform nitrogen and methane into ammonia, and considerable resources to distribute the fertilizer, leaves many impoverished farmers with no way to access this critical agricultural tool. However, Harvard University chemist Daniel Nocera and a team of researchers have engineered microbes that make their own fertilizer, and have thus found a potential solution to this significant problem.
Swirling among the countless other ‘omic’ terms that have grown out of technological and scientific advances is the human virome, or the collection of viruses in and on the human body. Given how quickly viruses evolve, the human virome is changing constantly, affecting the human microbiome and even the genome. At first pass, this may seem like another fascinating realization borne out of modern scientific advances; however, as illustrated in a PLOS Pathogens publication, recent efforts to characterize the blood virome of more than 8,000 people resulted in surprising findings and the realization that significant challenges remain for researchers trying to identify novel viruses.
While it may sometimes take calamitous headlines about a death caused by a drug-resistant infection, societal awareness of the problem of antibiotic resistance seems to be increasing. Fortunately, many of the factors responsible for the deteriorating situation have been identified, such as the ubiquitous use of antibiotics on healthy livestock to encourage rapid animal growth or the inability to create a new class of effective antibiotics. What’s more, the World Health Organization published recently a list of the 12 families of bacteria that are believed to pose the greatest threat to human health. Our founder, Dr. Rita Colwell, even spoke this week at an American Society of Microbiology conference dedicated to the topic of antibiotic resistance mitigation about assessing microbiomes in complex ecosystems. Despite having such well-defined targets and well-informed experts, the solutions remain far from simple.
The near-universal presence of microbes in the environment is illustrated by their endless applications, from foods to perfumes and fuels. However, as the research community has learned, most the microbial universe, about 99 percent, cannot be cultured and studied in a laboratory. This has made it difficult to get a comprehensive grasp of each of the domains of life – bacteria, eukarya, and archaea. However, thanks to advances in genetic sequencing technology, researchers can now take advantage of whole genome sequencing (WGS) and metagenomics, or the study of microbes in their natural environments. As a study published recently in mSphere illustrates, metagenomics will be crucial to avoiding some of the pitfalls of processes like 16S rRNA sequencing.
Cancer immunotherapy, or leveraging the immune system to treat cancer, is a powerful approach to fighting a diverse disease. While only six active immunotherapies have been approved for cancer treatments, hundreds of others are being tested in clinical trials, and for good reason – in some instances, immunotherapy drugs have bolstered patients’ immune systems well enough to drive cancer into remission, with only a few side effects. Unfortunately, one of the limitations of these drugs is the variability of their effectiveness. Despite some remarkable successes, there are just as many patient stories of immunotherapy drugs failing to deliver any therapeutic benefits. Naturally, researchers have been probing both patient populations to understand what factors might be influencing immunotherapy efficacy. Surprisingly, a team of researchers has discovered recently that gut microbiota may be playing a meaningful role in determining patients’ responses to immunotherapy treatments.
It doesn’t beat or expand greatly as we breathe, like the heart or lungs, respectively, so it can be easy to neglect the all-important functions and status of our largest organ – skin. With the responsibility of defending our bodies from foreign organisms, this significant organ has a complicated job. Adding to this biological complexity is the skin microbiome, or the diverse environment of microorganisms that inhabit the skin’s vast and varied surfaces. By exploring the skin microbiome, researchers have discovered bacteria that can naturally produce antibiotics capable of keeping disease-causing germs in check.
Specifically, as published recently in Science Translation Medicine, a team of scientists has identified protective bacteria that secrete two peptides, or short chains of amino acids, that have antimicrobial properties against a potentially harmful species of bacteria found frequently on the skin, known as Staphylococcus aureus. Using the protective bacteria, the team’s research showed that the antimicrobial secretions could target S. aureus without killing other microorganisms - avoiding the key pitfall of other antibiotics. What’s more, through lab and animal tests, the secretions were shown to be able to kill even drug-resistant S. aureus, known as MRSA.
If it were possible to form a circus featuring bacteria, it would give any show a run for its money. With so many remarkable biological characteristics and abilities, bacteria are a constant source of novel research discoveries, one of latest of which was published recently in the journal Chem.
As you may know, there exist what are known as electrogenic bacteria, which live in environments without oxygen, such as sediment in lakes or seas, and produce current as part of their metabolism. These microorganisms can breathe iron and mineral compounds like we breathe oxygen. However, as the Chem publication shares, researchers have discovered a way to enable non-electrogenic bacteria to have the same current-producing abilities.
Another week has come and passed, and delivered more news from the frontlines of microbial warfare. Although, instead of viruses and bacteria doing biological battle, a new publication in Nature Communications details how scientists pitted competing bacterial groups against each other and predicted how the conflict would unfold using previously existing physics equations.