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Researchers Discover New Thermophilic Bacterium That Converts Light into Chemical Energy

A team of researchers has discovered a novel thermophilic bacterium that transforms light into chemical energy in the hot springs of Yellowstone National Park.

The discovery of the chlorophyll-producing bacterium, Candidatus Chloracidobacterium (Cab.) thermophilum, will be described in the July 27 issue of the journal Science in a paper led by Don Bryant, Ernest C. Pollard professor of biotechnology in the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at Penn State, and David M. Ward, professor of microbial studies in the Thermal Biology Institute and Department of Land Resources and Environmental Sciences at Montana State University, and colleagues.

Yellowstone National Park is a scientific reservoir housing a large diversity of thermophilic bacteria. Yellowstone habitats have been explored since the 1960s for new organisms that may have important applications in biotechnology, in biofuels production, for cleaning up pollution (bioremediation) or in medicine.

The research team led by Bryant and Ward found the new bacterium living in the same hot springs as the most-famous Yellowstone microbe, Thermus aquaticus, which has revolutionized forensics and other fields by making the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) a routine procedure.

The new genus and species Cab. thermophilum also belongs to a new phylum, Acidobacteria. The discovery marks only the third time in the past 100 years that a new bacterial phylum has been added to the list of those with chlorophyll-producing members.

Although chlorophyll-producing bacteria are so abundant that they perform half the photosynthesis on Earth, only five of the 25 major phyla of bacteria previously were known to contain members with this ability.

The microbial mats give the hot springs in Yellowstone their remarkable yellow, orange, red, brown and green colors. Microbiologists are intrigued by Octopus and Mushroom Springs because their unusual habitats house a diversity of microorganisms, but many are difficult or impossible to grow in the lab. Metagenomics has given us a powerful new tool for finding these hidden organisms and exploring their physiology, metabolism and ecology.

—Don Bryant

Metagenomics is a means of studying organisms without having to culture them. Bulk samples are collected from the environment, then DNA is isolated from the cells and sequenced by shotgun sequencing on a very large scale. Analysis of the DNA sequences reveals what types of genes and organisms are present in the environment. The team focused on two genes: 16S ribosomal RNA, a crucial component of the machinery used by all living cells to manufacture proteins; and the gene for a protein called PscA, which is essential for converting light energy into chemical energy. 16S ribosomal RNA is distinctive in each species.

Cab. thermophilum grows near the surface of the mats together with cyanobacteria (blue-green algae) where there is light and oxygen, at a temperature of about 50 to 66 degrees Centigrade (122 to 151 degrees Fahrenheit). The organism was found in three hot springs—Mushroom Spring, Octopus Spring and Green Finger Pool—in the Lower Geyser Basin, not far from the Old Faithful Geyser.

Unexpectedly, the new bacterium has special light-harvesting antennae known as chlorosomes, which contain about 250,000 chlorophylls each. No member of this phylum nor any aerobic microbe was known to make chlorosomes before this discovery. The team found that Cab. thermophilum makes two types of chlorophyll that allow these bacteria to thrive in microbial mats and to compete for light with cyanobacteria.

This discovery is particularly important because members of the Acidobacteria have proven very hard to grow in laboratory cultures, which means their ecology and physiology are very poorly understood. Most species of Acidobacteria have been found in poor or polluted soils that are acidic, with a pH below 3. However, the Yellowstone environments are more alkaline, about pH 8.5 (on a scale of 1 to 14).

Other members of the team are: Amaya M. Garcia Costas, current Penn State graduate student; Julia A. Maresca, former Penn State doctoral student and current postdoctoral researcher at Massachusetts Institute of Technology; Aline Gomez Maqueo Chew, former Penn State doctoral student and current postdoctoral researcher at Ohio State University; Christian G. Klatt, graduate student from Montana State University; Mary M. Bateson, laboratory manager at Montana State University; Luke J. Tallon, formerly manager of the Biotechnology Core at The Institute for Genomic Research and currently senior manager of Software and Genomic Data Management at the University of Maryland; Jessica Hostetler, research associate at The Institute for Genomic Research; William C. Nelson, former bioinformatics analyst at The Institute for Genomic Research and now research assistant professor at the University of Southern California; and John F. Heidelberg, former investigator at The Institute for Genomic Research and now associate professor at the University of Southern California.

This work was supported by two grants from the National Science Foundation, one of which was from the Frontiers in Integrative Biology Program, and by grants from the Department of Energy and the NASA Exobiology Program. The Thermal Biology Institute of Montana State University also provided support for Don Bryant, who began this work as a visiting fellow at MSU in 2005.


Rafael Seidl

Interesting science, but the article does not indicate any potential applications. The key difference to plain old algae is that these critters can work their photosynthetic magic at elevated temperatures, so the chemistry may be faster. However, that does not necessarily mean the organisms actually convert energy at a higher rate than algae do, because the number of chlorplasts is also important.


This could be significant for carbon-recapture schemes.  One of the difficulties that critics of algae farming keep mentioning is the management of the growth systems to keep the temperature down inside the algae's growth range.  It's much easier to insulate to keep something warm than to cool it, so heat-loving photosynthetic bacteria could improve the prospects for these systems.


Rafael, these bacteria do not contain chloroplasts. Chloroplasts (found in algae and higher plants) are themselves degenerated, endosymbiosed cyanobacteria. The chlorophyll in photosynthetic bacteria exists within paired thylakoid membranes surrounding the cell contents.

P Schager

It's interesting from an energy bioengineer's point of view because higher temperatures go with higher reaction rates.

Roger Pham

Also, bacteria, being prokaryotes, will grow faster and easier to genetically engineer than algae, the latter being eukaryotes, with the exception of blue-green algae, which are not eukaryotes but not really bacteria, either.

This can be great stuff if fully developed or engineered. I'd prefer H2-producing bacteria using sunlight, though, if such ever exist, since the H2 will rise and can be collected without having to harvest the cellular mass hence destroying the proverbial "goose that lays the golden eggs!"

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