Recent news from Stanford’s Precourt Institute for Energy provides a reminder, just in case it’s slipped your mind, of why science is so very cool.
There, a team led by chemist Lynette Cegelski, PhD, discovered a new form of a useful, abundant material — cellulose — in one of the most studied bacteria: E. coli. The finding, which appears in Science, could allow for the enhanced development of renewable energy and offer insights into dangerous bacterial infections.
“The sky is the limit with possible applications of this new material,” Cegelski said in a Stanford news release. “Biomedical applications, materials applications, basic chemical uses. Maybe even the next carbon fiber precursor.”
How, then, did Cegelski’s team find this potentially wondrous substance in the most obvious of places? The release provides the answer:
Cegelski’s work was originally motivated by her fascination with microbes and the matrix of slime-like materials that surrounds them and protects their communities. That matrix performs many functions for the bacterial community, like sharing nutrients and protecting the community from antibiotics and the host immune system.
It was within that extracellular latticework that the team originally noticed a modified form of cellulose. It had been missed by decades of previous research because traditional lab techniques involve harsh chemicals that stripped the modification.
This cellulose, known as phosphoethanolamine cellulose, or pEtN, is thought to protect bacterial colonies from environmental stressors, such as antibiotics. Further research should clarify whether preventing the formation of pEtN could make it easier to treat some infections.
Image by NIAID