Bacteria called methylotrophs may use methane and methanol as fuel; in doing so, they create considerable quantities of formaldehyde during development, but until recently nobody understood how they detected and reacted to this toxic compound. Publishing on 26th May, 2021 in the Open Access journal PLOS Biology, Christopher Marx of the University of Idaho and colleagues describe their discovery of a novel formaldehyde sensor in the bacterium Methylorubrum extorquens, and other methylotrophs.
Some may remember the pungent odor of this poisonous compound from high school dissections of formaldehyde-preserved creatures. From bacteria to people, all organisms produce at least a tiny formaldehyde as a byproduct of their normal metabolic processes. Methylotrophs, however, make considerably higher quantities of formaldehyde while breaking down certain one-carbon compounds, such as methane and methanol, that they use as a source of both carbon and energy.
Marx and his team found the new formaldehyde detector by growing a methylotroph on progressively higher formaldehyde concentrations. They sequenced the genomes of bacteria which had evolved to tolerate excess formaldehyde and found mutations at a previously unknown gene that they called efgA, for”enhanced formaldehyde growth.” They found that this gene occurs nearly exclusively in the genomes of both methylotrophs, and that the EfgA protein the gene encodes can detect formaldehyde and quickly cease bacterial growth when amounts of the toxic chemical get too large. The researchers also revealed that integrating the efgA gene into a non-methylotroph bacterium, E. coli, allowed it to survive in higher-than-normal formaldehyde levels.
Previously, scientists had identified enzymes in all domains of life that detoxify formaldehyde. However, this is the primary protein detector described in methylotrophs that may detect formaldehyde and halt growth to avoid cell damage, all without causing detoxifying enzymes. The new discovery may involve applications in biotechnology; bacteria engineered to withstand high formaldehyde concentrations with an efgA receptor could possibly create pharmaceuticals and other precious substances while growing on methanol, a readily accessible industrial material.
Dr. Marx notes,”This job was a sudden outgrowth of a very simple question: what does it take for cells to grow right on formaldehyde? Remarkably, they needed to break a detector system instead of crank up detoxification. Work is ongoing to further understand the binding specificity of EfgA and homologous proteins as well as to Attempt to move from a hypothetical link between EfgA
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