Iron eating bacteria deciphered

By Dale Miller

Contrary to popular belief, genome sequencing doesn’t always involve Jurassic Park dinosaurs or medical breakthroughs. One University of Calgary professor is putting his work where the money is, Alberta’s oil and gas industry.

An article outlining the DNA sequence of Desulfovibrio vulgaris–an iron-eating bacteria threatening oil and gas pipelines–has recently been published in Nature Biotechnology by U of C microbiologist Dr. Gerrit Voordouw in collaboration with 35 other scientists.

“Once you have the genome sequence you have the blueprint of the bacteria,” explained Dr. Voordouw. “To determine the sequence is one thing, but to find out what it all means–well, that takes a while.”

Dr. Voordouw explains that this blueprint allows researchers to discover what genes give the bacteria its sulfate-reducing, sulfur-producing and corrosion causing abilities. With this data, they can learn how to turn these genes off and preserve oil and gas pipelines.

“It’s like experimenting with a car,” explains Dr. Voordouw. “We can learn that it’s OK to take off the muffler and still have the car run, but it’s not OK to take out the spark plugs.”

Coming in at 3.4 million base pairs long, the DNA genome is the first to be sequenced from a member of this group of bacteria. The automated sequencing was conducted in the United States, with Dr. Voordouw’s lab contributing the purified bacterial DNA.

Since growing these bacteria requires an oxygen-free environment and involves a substantial cost, it is only carried out in a handful of locations across North America. The U of C, with its close proximity to the oil and gas community feels the study is worth the cost.

“The U of C recognizes that energy is going to be a big problem in the next 75 years,” said Dr. Voordouw of the importance of his study. “If we can’t heat our homes, we can’t life in Canada.”

The next step in Dr. Voordouw’s research involves using the genome sequences to create a micro array chip, which allows researchers to find out how important each gene is by hybridizing bacterial RNA to the chip.

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