Lean Season Bacteria Storage Strategies Could Help Biomaterials Production

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Bacteria can store additional resources during lean periods. It’s a bit like keeping a piggy bank or carrying a backup battery. A large reserve is known as cyanophycin granules, which were first noticed by an Italian scientist around 150 years ago. He saw large dark spots in the cells of blue-green algae (cyanobacteria) he was studying without understanding either what they were or their purpose. Since then, scientists have understood that cyanophycin is made of a natural green biopolymer, that bacteria use it as a store of nitrogen and energy, and that it could have many biotechnological applications. They tried to make large amounts of cyanophycin by putting the enzyme that makes it (known as cyanophycin synthetase) in everything from E. coli to tobacco, but couldn’t make enough to be of much use.

Now, by combining two cutting-edge techniques, electron cryomicroscopy (at the McGill Electron Microscopy Research Center) and X-ray crystallography, McGill researchers have, for the first time, been able to see the active enzyme in action.

“Until now, scientists have been unable to understand how bacterial cells store nitrogen in cyanophycin, simply because they could not see the enzyme in action,” explains Martin Schmeing, professor in the Department of McGill biochemistry and lead author of a recent paper. on the subject in Nature Chemical Biology. “By stitching together 3D images of the enzyme at work in a movie, we were able to see how three different structural units (or domains) came together to create cyanophycin synthetase. It is a surprising and very elegant example of a natural biomachine.

The next steps in the research are to examine the other enzymes used in the complete cycle of cyanophycin biosynthesis and degradation. Once researchers were able to see them in action, it would potentially give them a full structural understanding of the processes involved and allow them to understand how to supercharge cells to make massive amounts of cyanophycin and related polymers for their green polymer. biotechnological applications, such as biodegradable water softeners and scale inhibitors or the creation of thermosensitive nanovesicles for use in targeted drug delivery.

Reference
Sharon I, Haque AS, Grogg M, et al. Structures and function of the amino acid polymerase cyanophycin synthetase. Nat Chem Biol. 2021; 17 (10): 1101-1110. do I:10.1038 / s41589-021-00854-y

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