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Shedding New Light on Proteorhodopsin

New light has been shed on proteorhodopsin, the light-sensitive protein found in many marine bacteria. Researchers at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Lawrence// Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) and the University of California at Berkeley have demonstrated that when the ability to respire oxygen is impaired, bacterium equipped with proteorhodopsin will switch to solar power to carry out vital life processes.

“Our research shows that proteorhodopsin contributes to a bacterial cell’s energy balance only under certain environmental conditions, namely when the cell’s ability to respire has been impaired,” said Jan Liphardt, a biophysicist who holds a joint appointment as a Divisional Fellow in Berkeley Lab's Physical Biosciences Division (PBD) and the Physics Department of UC Berkeley (UCB).

“By harvesting light, proteorhodopsin enables bacterial cells to supplement respiration as a cellular energy source. This ability to withstand oxygen deprivation probably explains why so many ocean bacteria express proteorhodopsin.”

Liphardt said that the solar power option represents a potentially significant boost for efforts to develop alternatives to fossil fuel energy sources. Microbes that can simultaneously harvest energy from several different sources may be better at producing biofuels than microbes that can only utilize a single energy source.

The results of this study appear in a paper published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), entitled: Light-powering Escherichia coli with proteorhodopsin. Co-authoring the paper with Liphardt were UCB graduate students Jessica Walter and Derek Greenfield, and Carlos Bustamante, who also holds a joint Berkeley Lab-UCB appointment and is a Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) investigator.

There was a great deal of excitement in the biology community in 2000 when proteorhodopsin was first discovered encoded within the genomes of uncultivated ma rine bacteria. The discovery implied that such bacteria possessed phototrophic as well as respiratory capabilities. This would be a critical adaptation for seafaring microbes because the world’s oceans are permeated with “dead zones,” areas that lack sufficient oxygen to sustain life.

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