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Newfound gene may help bacteria survive in extreme environments

In the days following the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill, methane-eating bacteria bloomed in the Gulf of Mexico, feasting on the methane that gushed, along with oil, from the damaged well. The sudden influx of microbes was a scientific curiosity: Prior to the oil spill, scientists had observed relatively few signs of methane-eating microbes in the area.

Now researchers at MIT have discovered a bacterial gene that may explain this sudden influx of methane-eating bacteria. This gene 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 — become available. The gene codes for a protein, named HpnR, that is responsible for producing bacterial lipids known as 3-methylhopanoids. The researchers say producing these lipids may better prepare nutrient-starved microbes to make a sudden appearance in nature when conditions are favorable, such as after the Deepwater Horizon accident.

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