Biotechnologists look to bacteria in extremely cold environments for 'green' detergents

February 07, 2018

Despite subzero temperatures, increased UV radiation, little liquid water, and few available nutrients, bacteria living at Earth's poles thrive. They manage it thanks in part to molecules called biosurfactants, which help them separate the complex substrates they feed on into easy-to-metabolize droplets. On February 7 in the journal Trends in Biotechnology, researchers review the hypothetical uses of these cold-loving molecules for "green" detergents, fuel additives, and other applications.

"They really have a tremendous potential," says microbiologist and biotechnologist Amedea Perfumo of the GFZ German Research Centre for Geosciences. Biosurfactants are safe to release into the environment and can be produced using affordable waste products such as olive oil byproduct and cooking oils. They also work in lower concentrations, so we need less of them to get the same job done. But the ones produced by extremophilic bacteria have what Perfumo calls "an extra feature": they work at freezing temperatures.

This stability has huge implications for how these molecules could be used. Biodiesel, which is produced from waste materials and cleaner burning than gasoline, might be a viable fuel alternative if a biosurfactant additive could improve its sluggish flow in cold temperatures. Cold-active biosurfactant detergents would mean we could go green by reducing washing temperatures, without worrying that our clothes wouldn't get clean. These biosurfactants could also be used to harvest natural gas from cage-like ice crystals called gas hydrates or to clean up pollution spills in colder regions of the ocean.

According to Perfumo, there has never been a better time than now to advance research into these biotechnological applications. "The cold regions of our planet are actually becoming more reachable for exploration and for scientific research," she says. And the growing availability of extremophilic bacteria in culture collections has also improved accessibility. "Scientists who don't have the option to go personally to the polar regions and take samples can simply get organisms from culture collections. It's in reach for everybody."

Cold-active enzymes, which are also produced by extremophilic bacteria, have already begun to be produced industrially. When asked why this isn't true of cold-active biosurfactants, Perfumo doesn't have a good answer. "It's quite a question mark for me," she says, because she sees so much potential for these molecules. She does acknowledge, however, that there is still a lot of work that needs to be done to determine the most useful bacteria, the conditions at which they will produce the highest yields, and whether it might be possible to produce biosurfactants as part of the process that produces enzymes.

"We still only know a little," she says. Nonetheless, she's hopeful. "I think that with a little work and a little patience and especially with joint forces, we can take a bold step in the near future. It will really be a grand challenge for science and technology."
-end-
This work was supported by European Union's Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme.

Trends in Biotechnology, Perfumo, A. et al.: "Going Green and Cold: Biosurfactants from Low Temperature Environments to Biotechnology Applications" http://www.cell.com/trends/biotechnology/fulltext/S0167-7799(17)30280-9

Trends in Biotechnology (@TrendsinBiotech), published by Cell Press, is a monthly review journal of applied biosciences. It addresses what is new, significant, and practicable in the integrated use of many biological technologies--from molecular genetics to biochemical engineering. Visit: http://www.cell.com/trends/biotechnology. To receive Cell Press media alerts, please contact press@cell.com.

Cell Press

Related Bacteria Articles from Brightsurf:

Siblings can also differ from one another in bacteria
A research team from the University of Tübingen and the German Center for Infection Research (DZIF) is investigating how pathogens influence the immune response of their host with genetic variation.

How bacteria fertilize soya
Soya and clover have their very own fertiliser factories in their roots, where bacteria manufacture ammonium, which is crucial for plant growth.

Bacteria might help other bacteria to tolerate antibiotics better
A new paper by the Dynamical Systems Biology lab at UPF shows that the response by bacteria to antibiotics may depend on other species of bacteria they live with, in such a way that some bacteria may make others more tolerant to antibiotics.

Two-faced bacteria
The gut microbiome, which is a collection of numerous beneficial bacteria species, is key to our overall well-being and good health.

Microcensus in bacteria
Bacillus subtilis can determine proportions of different groups within a mixed population.

Right beneath the skin we all have the same bacteria
In the dermis skin layer, the same bacteria are found across age and gender.

Bacteria must be 'stressed out' to divide
Bacterial cell division is controlled by both enzymatic activity and mechanical forces, which work together to control its timing and location, a new study from EPFL finds.

How bees live with bacteria
More than 90 percent of all bee species are not organized in colonies, but fight their way through life alone.

The bacteria building your baby
Australian researchers have laid to rest a longstanding controversy: is the womb sterile?

Hopping bacteria
Scientists have long known that key models of bacterial movement in real-world conditions are flawed.

Read More: Bacteria News and Bacteria Current Events
Brightsurf.com is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com.