Teaching Oil Eating Bacteria To Stay Afloat

Around the pool, inflatable arm bands that keep youngsters upright can be a lifesaver. Now, researchers at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst have come up with water wings for useful "bugs," such as oil-eating bacteria. Using gene-splicing techniques, the researchers isolated 13 genes responsible for producing air-filled sacs in a floating bacterium called Halobacterium halobium. The sacs help keep the sun-loving bacteria close to the ocean surface.

Last year, Shiladitya Dassarma, a professor of molecular genetics, transferred the water-wing genes to a nonfloating variant of halobacterium. Presto: It sprouted the sacs. In August, Dassarma got a three-year grant from the National Science Foundation to transplant the genes into oil-eaters that clean up ocean spills--and thus let them keep munching after others have sunk. Next may come reengineered yeast for beer-making. Dassarma says the yeast would float to the top of the vat to be skimmed off--so the beer wouldn't have to be filtered.

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