Dirt-dwelling workhorse unearthed

November 16, 2006, volume 37, no.6
By Jennifer Gardy

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A microorganism capable of digesting pollutants and producing industrially important compounds might sound like a miracle sent from the future. But as two SFU researchers recently discovered, one of nature's most versatile workhorses has been lurking in the soil for hundreds of millions of years.

Fiona Brinkman, molecular biology and biochemistry associate professor, and graduate student William Hsiao played a key role in the analysis of the Rhodococcus genome. This dirt-dwelling bacterium has industrial applications ranging from the production of acrylic acid — a compound used to manufacture plastics, paints and adhesives — to the breakdown of PCB pollutants.

Using IslandPath — a computational tool developed in the Brinkman lab, the pair uncovered the evolutionary history of this multi-talented microbe.

“We wanted to understand how the Rhodococcus genome became so large and so versatile,” says Hsiao. “We discovered that both its large size and its ability to use diverse compounds found in soil evolved mainly through ancient gene acquisitions and duplications.”

These long-ago evolutionary events may have also facilitated more recent adaptations in the bacterium.

“The ancient core pathways may have given Rhodococcus enough versatility to survive in a complex environment like the soil,” Brinkman explains. “This then predisposes the bug to obtain other genes from other organisms in that same environment, making it even more versatile.”

Brinkman and Hsiao's findings were included in a Rhodococcus genome paper published in October's Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. And their list of co-authors included two other notable SFU names.

MBB adjunct faculty members Steven Jones and Marco Marra, both recipients of the President's 40th Anniversary Awards, also played an integral role in the genome project. Together with colleagues at the Michael Smith Genome Sciences Centre, Jones and Marra developed a new approach for the sequencing of linear bacterial chromosomes, like those found
in Rhodococcus.

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