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New Gene Explains Why Bacteria Grow When Oxygen Is Low

Normally, the absence of oxygen means an absence of life. But in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon Gulf oil spill, scientists noticed something curious happening in the water. Huge populations of methane-eating bacteria appeared out of nowhere, despite the fact that there had hardly been any of these bacteria present prior to the spill, and millions of gallons of toxic oil usually kill things, not bring them to life.

A few years later, scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) think they may have found an explanation for this phenomenon. Researchers have discovered a gene that enables bacteria to survive in extreme, oxygen-depleted environments, lying dormant until food — such as methane from an oil spill, and the oxygen needed to metabolize it — becomes available. The scientists are now taking a closer look at gene codes for a protein named HpnR that is responsible for producing bacterial lipids known as 3-methylhopanoids. It’s this gene scientists say could trigger nutrient-starved microbes to make a sudden appearance when the eating gets good.
 
 

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