Flame-proof bacteria stay safe in the seas

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  • Published: Jun 30, 2014
  • Author: Jon Evans
  • Channels: HPLC

Despite not really benefiting from the ability, certain marine bacteria turn out to be naturally fire resistant, report US scientists. They have discovered that these bacteria produce poylbrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), flame retardant chemicals regularly added to textiles, electronics and the foam padding used in sofas and other furniture.

As potent endocrine disrupters, PBDEs are also ubiquitous and persistent pollutants that have been detected in many different organisms, including humans, as they can bioaccumulate in fatty tissues. Until recently, scientists thought that industry was the sole source of PBDEs, but recent research has indicated that there may also be a natural source, although its exact nature hadn’t been pinpointed.

A team of scientists at the University of California, San Diego, led by Bradley Moore, decided to take a close look at a widely-dispersed genus of marine bacteria called Pseudoalteromonas, which were already known to produce several brominated compounds. Using liquid chromatography-tandem mass spectrometry, they analysed organic extracts from a species known as Pseudoalteromonas luteoviolacea, found in coral off the Florida Keys, US, and a species known as Pseudoalteromonas phenolica, collected off the coast off Japan. As Moore and his colleagues report in Nature Chemical Biology, in both cases they were able to detect several PBDEs.

To confirm that the bacteria had actually synthesized these PBDEs, rather than simply absorbing them from the environment, Moore and his team then analysed the genomes of both bacteria, finding a group of 10 genes that appear to be responsible for synthesising PBDEs and other brominated compounds. Using this genetic information, the scientists are now planning to see whether any other marine organisms are able to produce PBDEs.

‘The next step is to look more broadly in the marine environment for the distribution of this gene signature and to document how these compounds are entering the food chain,’ said team member Vinayak Agarwal.

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