Bacteria come in two basic forms: the kinds that use a lot of hydrogen, and the kinds that don’t. And recently researchers think they’ve found a new bacteria that appear to do both at the same time, allowing it to live in a variety of extreme environments, like the ocean floor.
Its name is Acetobacterium woodii, often shortened to A. woodii, and it seems like it’s a superhero of the small-sized world.
Many kinds of bacteria are anaerobic, meaning they don’t use oxygen for their metabolism. You’re quite familiar with these critters: they eats the sugars in foods to turn them into other yummy things, like cheese and sauerkraut. One of the byproducts of this process is the production of hydrogen, which to these bacteria is just a useless waste gas, but in too high concentrations it can disrupt their metabolism and choke them to death.
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Thankfully, in many habitats these bacteria partner up with other varieties that just love hydrogen – using it in combination with carbon dioxide to generate energy. Though this syntrophy both kinds of bacteria can thrive.
But A. woodii? It looks like it can do both – it has the ability to perform either metabolic pathway, depending on whether there’s a lot of hydrogen in its environment or not. Scientists with the Goethe University in Frankfurt discovered this by snipping away the part of A. woodii’s genome that allowed it to produce hydrogen. With this link in the chain broken, the modified bacteria could only live in a hydrogen-rich environment.
If confirmed, the results would be the first direct evidence that certain kinds of bacteria are much more flexible than previously thought, opening up intriguing possibilities as to the possibilities of life on other worlds.