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NSF Press Release


NSF PR 00-69 - October 2, 2000

Media contacts:

 Tom Garritano, NSF

 (703) 292-8070


 Paula Hartman Cohen,
 Univ. of Massachusetts

 (413) 545-2987

Program contact:

 Philip Harriman

 (703) 292-8439

This material is available primarily for archival purposes. Telephone numbers or other contact information may be out of date; please see current contact information at media contacts.

International Research Group Sequences Genome of Ubiquitous Microbe

A team of scientists funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) has completed the genome sequence of Halobacterium species NRC-1, a microorganism that is among the most ancient forms of life. The achievement is especially significant due to this bacterium's widespread use as a model for genetic manipulation.

Results appear in the October 3 edition of the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). The research was led by microbial geneticist Shiladitya DasSarma at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst in collaboration with molecular biotechnologist Leroy Hood at the Institute of Systems Biology in Seattle. DasSarma and Hood led a consortium of researchers from 12 universities and research centers in the U.S., Canada and the U.K. on the three-year, $1.2-million project.

NSF program director Joanne Tornow says that the goal of NSF's Microbial Genetics research is to spur the development of such genomic studies. "Genomic projects have produced a great deal of data, but we're just getting to the point where we can find answers to a lot of the most interesting biology questions," she said. "Every day, we learn more about functional, comparative and structural genomics. These data will allow us to ask questions we couldn't ask before."

Halobacterium NRC-1 is a member of the archaea, the third branch of biological life; the other two branches are eukaryotes (which include animals and plants) and bacteria. Archaea are referred to as "extremophilic" because they thrive in extreme environments -- for example, under high pressure, low temperature, high acidity or other conditions. Halobacteria are called "halophiles" because they thrive in environments 10 times saltier than seawater.

When part of a salt-water body such as the Great Salt Lake or the Dead Sea turns bright pink or red, it often indicates the presence of Halobacteria. Just one cubic centimeter of water can contain millions of the single-cell, rod-shaped microorganisms whose red pigment can stay visible in salt crystals left behind long after a lake dries up. Halobacteria convert sunlight to energy, giving off a red byproduct whose light sensitivity makes it commercially useful in possible applications such as information storage for computers.

"Genome studies on Halobacterium should contribute toward some of the greatest unsolved mysteries of biology today, including our understanding of evolution as well as of the fundamental life process in higher cells," says DasSarma. "There is a tremendous genetic resource in the genomes of microorganisms. In fact, it is one of the last, largely untapped natural resources on our planet."

DasSarma adds, "These tiny creatures will provide many insights into how more complex creatures manage life functions, including cell division, and the way cells transport proteins across biological membranes. Right now, several biomedical applications using Halobacterium are being investigated, including the development of orally administered vaccines and the design of new antibiotics."




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