As part of the search for better ways to track and clean upsoil contaminants, scientists at the U.S. Department of Energy'sBrookhaven National Laboratory and Stony Brook University havedeveloped a new way to "image" the internal chemistry of bacteria. Thetechnique will allow scientists to "see" at the molecular level howsoil-dwelling microbes interact with various pollutants. The methodmight also help scientists better understand and prevent bacterialdiseases, or find ways to detect or disable bacteria used in a terrorattack.
"The more we learn about soil microbe chemistry, thebetter we'll be able to predict the movement of contaminants in theenvironment," said Brookhaven microbiologist Jeffrey Gillow. "What welearn might also suggest new ways to harness microorganisms toimmobilize things like heavy metals and radioactive contaminants," hesaid. Gillow will give a talk on the new method at the 230th nationalmeeting of the American Chemical Society in Washington, D.C. on Monday,August 29, 2005 at 11:10 a.m. in room 204C of the Washington ConventionCenter.
Called x-ray spectromicroscopy, the method uses theextremely bright x-rays available at Brookhaven's National SynchrotronLight Source (NSLS) -- but not just to take pictures. At the NSLS, thescientists can actually "tune" the energy level of the beam to measuresubtle differences in the energy absorbed by different forms of carbon.This carbon absorption spectrum, or "fingerprint," reveals detailedbiochemical information about what is inside and around the bacterialcells -- and can even detect the formation of bacterial spores at anearly stage invisible to other methods.
"We are starting to learna lot more about the molecular chemistry of these bacteria," saidGillow. "The goal is to understand better how they interact with metalsand radionuclides."
The technique may also reveal details aboutthe process of bacterial spore formation. This could be important toenvironmental cleanup because spore-forming microbes often live incontaminated environments. It might also offer new targets for thedetection of weaponized bacteria (by finding spores at an early stage),or help thwart disease or a terrorist attack by finding ways to preventthe spores from germinating into active, infective bacterial cells.
Withthis technique, Gillow added, samples can be studied wet or dry,without staining, sectioning, or any other intervention such as thoseused in electron and fluorescence microscopy.
This work is acollaborative effort of the Center for Environmental Molecular Science-- which consists of scientists from Stony Brook University andBrookhaven Lab -- and the University of Guelph in Canada. Drawing onthe expertise of microbiologists, chemists, and physicists, it crossestraditional boundaries between scientific disciplines to addressproblems of global significance. The work was funded by the U.S.National Science Foundation and the Office of Biological andEnvironmental Research within the U.S. Department of Energy's Office ofScience.
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