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Bacterial ‘High-Flyer’ Takes Center Stage In The Biotechnology Arena


The blogosphere is brimming with commentaries over the ever-visible changes that usher in the arrival of Autumn in the northern hemisphere (1). The beckoningly bright colors of the foliage on our trees and the seasonal appearance of pumpkins that adorn our porches and abound in the fields around our cities serve as reminders of a festive transition. Throw the occasional honking of migrating Canadian geese into the mix and it is easy to see why many of us cannot help but momentarily stop in awe. The geese in particular are my gaze-catchers. Craning my neck as I look straight up I have become obsessed with capturing the flight of these birds on camera.

But there is more that interests me about Canadian geese than simply their migratory ‘order of business’.  Unknown to many a bird watcher, Canadian geese are one of several ‘gold mine’ species that harbor a strain of bacteria called Bacillus licheniformis in the tufts of their plumage (2).  These feather-degrading bugs are prevalent in all manner of ground-foraging birds and occur in greatest numbers during the late autumn and winter months.  Because of their tough keratin-rich microfibril composition, feathers are extraordinarily resistant to biodegradation (2). But not so tough that keratinolytic bacteria such as B. licheniformis cannot break them down (2). And biotechnologists are exploiting this ability to the full. 

B. licheniformis has spawned much excitement in the agricultural world (3).  Bird feathers are routinely used in animal feed.  But until the early 1990’s steaming was the only means by which they could be made more digestible (3).  Scientific acumen and ingenuity changed all that.  By putting B.licheniformis to work on a feathery meal, an inter-disciplinary group from North Carolina State University generated “appreciable degradation products” of digestible protein (3).  In so doing they opened the door for a commercially-viable process that improves on the nutritional value of traditional steaming methods.  

And its agricultural relevance has not stopped there.  This multi-purpose bacterium is also finding application in pest control as a “pre-harvest” treatment for eradicating diseases that attack fruit (4).  Mangos, which today constitute “one of the most important fruit crops grown in tropical and subtropical regions” have been targeted for trials against bacterial blackspot (Xanthomonas campestris), anthracnose and soft rot (4).  Chemical treatments such as Copper Oxychloride have been heavily legislated against because of their detrimental effects on soils (4).  B.licheniformis has proven to be an effective antagonist against these diseases and is therefore gaining traction as the way of the future for pest control.

Enzymes are commonly deployed in laundry products where they function as potent digesters of dried-on grime. And those of B.licheniformis are best-in-class when it comes to getting the job done. Look down the ingredients list of most brands of washing powder and you are likely to find two components-α-amylase and Subtilisin-A- that respectively perform the job of breaking down starch and proteins (5). Thankfully detergents do not adversely affect the ability of these enzymes to get to work on food splurges (6).    Microbially-derived proteases form more than half of the industrial enzyme market (6). And those of alkaline-dwelling organisms such as B.licheniformis are particularly attractive given the high pH of laundry detergents (9.0-12.0) (6).

B.licheniformis has also joined a fast growing club of microorganisms able to synthesize gold nanoparticles which are used in the development of gold-based pharmaceuticals (7).  Microorganisms such as B.licheniformis carry periplasmic proteins on their outer surface that bind and reduce Aureum Chloride and in the process generate 10-100nm sized nanoparticles that can be isolated from the bacterial fraction as a dried powder (7).  The microorganismic approach to gold nanoparticle production has the unique advantage of being more ecologically sound than current procedures that use harmful reducing agents (7).

From our houses to our farms and onwards into the pharmaceutical development lab B.licheniformis is fast becoming an indispensable workhorse.  Its many secrets are being exploited in novel ways.  And its revolutionary attributes continue to amaze.  Higher eukaryotes sport elaborate olfaction mechanisms to detect gas molecules (8).  Up until earlier this year there had been no reports of similar mechanisms in bacteria (8).  All that changed with the news that a couple of European biotechnologists had incontrovertibly demonstrated olfaction in B.licheniformis cultures (8).  By putting B.licheniformis adjacent to inducer strains of B.subtilis, M.luteus and E.coli, Reindert Nijland and J. Grant Burgess observed notable color changes and a tendency for formation of dense pellicles (known in the trade as biofilms) (8,9).  Some simple experiments gave Niijland and Burgess the clues they needed to home in on the molecular exchange that lay at the heart of this response- a rise in concentrations of gaseous ammonia (8,9). 

Seen in the wider context of the discoverability of our planet that authors such as Guillermo Gonzalez, Jay Richards and Michael Denton have exposed in their best-selling tomes, B.licheniformis is just one of a vast number of available resources that are helping us reshape the way we live.  “The stupendous success of science since 1600” writes Denton “is testimony enough to the remarkable fitness of our mind to comprehend the world”  (10).  “We’ve seen that scientific progress and discovery depend on nature being more than meaningless matter in motion…It’s an exquisite structure that preserves vast stores of information….We in turn possess the materials and the physical and intellectual capacity to create technologies…As eyeglasses and light bulbs have improved our ability to read written texts so the microscope and telescope have allowed us to read the book of nature more deeply…The myriad conditions that make a region habitable are also the ones that make the best overall places for discovering the universe in its smallest and largest expressions” (11).

Whether the olfaction aptitude of B.licheniformis can be translated into a useful application that aids in the “betterment of human life” (in accordance with the biotechnologists’ mantra, 12) remains to be seen.  Yet the story of this robust microorganism seems far from over.  And as the geese continue to pass overhead during this year’s autumnal leaf-fall I cannot help but see it as a bacterial ‘high-flyer’ that has taken center stage in the biotechnology arena.

Further Reading

  1. Sara Klink (2010) A Time For Harvest, Promega Connections, September, 24th, 2010, See http://promega.wordpress.com/2010/09/24/a-time-for-harvest/ 
  2. Edward Burtt,  Jann Ichida (1999) Occurrence of feather-degrading bacilli in the plumage of birds, The Auk, See  http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_qa3793/is_199904/ai_n8834646/
  3. C.M.Williams , C.S Richter, J.M. MacKenzie Jr, Jason C.H. Shih (1990) Isolation, Identification and Characterization of a Feather-Degrading Bacterium, Applied And Environmental Microbiology, Volume 56 (6), pp. 1509-1515
  4. Evaluation of pre-harvest Bacillus licheniformis sprays to control mango fruit diseases,  Crop Protection, Volume 26, pp. 1474-1481
  5. Measurement of endo-Protease and α-Amylase in Biological Washing Powders & Liquids using AZO CASEIN and AMYLAZYME TABLETS www.megazyme.com/GetAttachment.aspx?id=17e0f84c-9ba1
  6. Nedra El Hadj-Ali, Rym Agrebi, Basma Ghorbel-Frikha, Alya Sellami-Kamoun, Safia Kanoun and Moncef Nasri (2007) Biochemical and molecular characterization of a detergent stable alkaline serine-protease from a newly isolated Bacillus licheniformis NH1, Enzyme and Microbial Technology, Volume 40, pp. 515-523
  7. Kalimuthu Kalishwaralal, Venkataraman Deepak, Sureshbabu Ram Kumar Pandian, Sangiliyandi Gurunathan (2009) Biological Synthesis Of Gold Nanocubes From Bacillus Licheniformis, Bioresource Technology, Volume 100, pp. 5356-5358
  8. Reindert Nijland and J. Grant Burgess (2010) Bacterial Olfaction,  Biotechnology Journal, DOI 10.1002/biot.201000174
  9. Janelle Weaver (2010) Bacteria sniff out their food, Nature 16 August 2010, See http://www.nature.com/news/2010/100816/full/news.2010.411.html
  10. Michael Denton (1998), Nature’s Destiny: How The Laws of Biology, Reveal Purpose in the Universe, 1st Edition Published by the Free Press, New York, p.260
  11. Guillermo Gonzalez and Jay Richards (2004), The Privileged Planet, How Our Place In The Cosmos Is Designed For Discovery, Regnery Publishing Inc, Washington D.C, New York, p.334
  12. Abdelali Haoudi (2003) New Forum for Innovative Research in Biomedicine and Biotechnology, J Biomed Biotechnol. 2003, Issue 3, p.161

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