Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Living on Thin Air

Prof Gregory Cook (left) and Dr Chris Greening (right)

Prof Gregory Cook (left) and Dr Chris Greening (right) have been investigating the role of hydrogen in the adaptation of myco­bacteria to starvation and hypoxia. Credit: Sharron Bennett

By Chris Greening

Soil bacteria can survive lengthy periods without food or water by metabolising hydrogen. How they do this has wider implications for understanding the biology of soils, the chemistry of the atmosphere and the development of artificial catalysts to harness hydrogen as a fuel source.

The full text of this article can be purchased from Informit.

Mycobacteria are extraordinarily hardy bacteria: they can survive for great lengths of time in the absence of growth. Still the biggest bacterial killer, Mycobacterium tuberculosis resists drug treatment and evades immune detection by entering latent states. Also abundant in soils, mycobacteria such as M. smegmatis can withstand sudden downturns in their environment. Both organisms can cope with starvation and hypoxia for months or even years.

Despite much study, little is understood about how bacteria generate energy during persistence. Four years ago, Prof Gregory Cook’s laboratory at The University of Otago secured funding from the Royal Society of New Zealand to investigate the role of molecular hydrogen in the adaptation of myco­bacteria to starvation and hypoxia. Together with Dr Michael Berney and Honour’s student Kiel Hards, I investigated the enzymes that metabolise hydrogen in these organisms during the course of my PhD.

We initially studied mycobacterial hydrogen metabolism because we thought there would be scope to make medically significant findings in this area. After all, pioneering work from Prof Robert Maier of The University of Georgia showed that hydrogen oxidation was crucial to the pathogenesis of causative agents of stomach ulcers (Helicobacter pylori) and food poisoning (Salmonella enterica). We hypothesised that M. tuberculosis might...

The full text of this article can be purchased from Informit.