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News

Real super-bugs can save the planet

Society For General Microbiology : 26 October, 2004  (Company News)
Beneficial bacteria have fast-tracked evolution to solve some of our pollution problems, according to an article in the November 2004 issue of Microbiology Today, the quarterly magazine of the Society for General Microbiology. Using the same mechanisms that have allowed hospital superbugs to survive in the presence of antibiotics, many bacteria have changed their behaviour and now use our toxic chemicals as a source of food.
Beneficial bacteria have fast-tracked evolution to solve some of our pollution problems, according to an article in the November 2004 issue of Microbiology Today, the quarterly magazine of the Society for General Microbiology. Using the same mechanisms that have allowed hospital superbugs to survive in the presence of antibiotics, many bacteria have changed their behaviour and now use our toxic chemicals as a source of food.

Researchers at the University of Wales Bangor have studied the way that bacteria share DNA in order to adapt and survive by using, and so degrade, synthetic chemicals, like dyes and solvents, released into the environment. These moveable pieces of DNA, called plasmids, can be easily passed between bacteria of the same and often very different species.

'Modern industry releases many synthetic chemicals into the environment which are hazardous to us, our livestock and crops,' explains Professor Peter Williams. However, many bacteria are dealing with this problem and removing these substances. Bacteria are using genes that they already had for degrading natural waste materials and exchanging and rearranging them amongst themselves.

'This movement of genes is essentially the same as that which drives the evolution of antibiotic resistant bacteria in hospitals with its associated hazards, but in this case the result is beneficial and produces bacteria that can clean potential pollution from the environment. These bacteria are the real superbugs,' says Professor Williams.

Microbiologists confront evolution in action on a daily basis in their work. Microbes resistant to antimicrobial agents have emerged through mutation or by acquiring protective genes from other microbes. Gene swapping or genetic reassortment allows viruses to stay one step ahead of the immune system. Natural selection lets individuals within a microbial community adapt and survive in a new environment or experiment.
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