Oct. 3, 2000 A team of scientists funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and affiliated with the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, has completed the genome sequence of Halobacterium species NRC-1, an "extremophilic" microorganism that is among one of the most ancient forms of life. The achievement from research led by microbial geneticist Shiladitya DasSarma in collaboration with molecular biotechnologist Leroy Hood of the Institute of Systems Biology in Seattle, will be published in the October 3 edition of the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). DasSarma and Hood led a consortium of researchers from 12 universities and research centers in the U.S., Canada, and the U.K., on the three-year, $1.2-million project.
NSF program director Joanne Tornow says that NSF's goal is to catalyze the development of similar genomic research. "Genomic projects have produced a great deal of data, but we're just getting to the point where we can find answers to a lot of the most interesting biology questions," she said. "Every day, we learn more about functional, comparative, and structural genomics. This data will allow us to ask questions we couldn't ask before."
Halobacterium NRC-1 is a member of the archaea, the third branch of life in the biological world. Archaea are evolutionary relics, that grows best in an atmoshere 10 times saltier than seawater, yet they represent a third of all living creatures. Astronomical numbers of Halobacteria - a microscopic, rod-shaped organism - can be found in bodies of very salty water, including the Great Salt Lake and the Dead Sea. The single-celled organisms utilize sunlight to synthesize energy, giving off a red byproduct that has been harvested for commercial use for its lightsensitive properties. When a body of water turns bright pink or red, it is often a sign that millions of Halobacteria are present. These microorganisms, and their red pigment, can remain in salt crystals left behind long after a lake dries up.
"Genome studies on Halobacterium should contribute toward some of the greatest unsolved mysteries of biology today, including our understanding of evolution as well as of the fundamental life process in higher cells," says DasSarma. "There is a tremendous genetic resource in the genomes of microorganisms. In fact, it is one of the last, largely untapped natural resources on our planet." DasSarma adds, "These tiny creatures will provide many insights into how more complex creatures manage life functions, including cell division, and the way cells transport proteins across biological membranes. Right now, several biomedical applications using Halobacterium are being investigated, including the development of orally administered vaccines, and the design of new antibiotics."
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