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Microorganisms for a better world

 

EMBO Member Mike Jetten of Radboud University, Nijmegen, The Netherlands has spent his career looking for difficult-to-find bacteria. His quest has helped find ways to deliver benefits to the environment. The long-term goal is to build sustainable economies based around applications arising from newly discovered anaerobic microorganisms. Microbes that can survive without oxygen can play important roles in applied science and can even be used to trap or neutralize greenhouse gases.

 

In the 1990s, Mike Jetten and his colleague Mark van Loosdrecht from TU Delft discovered anammox, anaerobic ammonium-oxidizing bacteria that convert ammonium directly to nitrogen without the need for oxygen. These bacteria are now used worldwide in compact installations that provide a low-energy system for purifying wastewater without the generation of greenhouse gas emissions. In December 2013, Jetten and fellow collaborators from TU Delft, Wageningen University and the Royal Netherlands Institute for Sea Research (NIOZ) received a Euros 22.9 million Gravitation grant from the Dutch Ministry of Education, Culture and Science. The funds have been used to establish The Soehngen Institute for Anaerobic Microbiology (SIAM), a research institute to identify new anaerobic microorganisms with characteristics that will benefit the environment and health. The centre for excellence investigates greenhouse gas production and consumption, studies the gut microbiome to improve the health of host organisms, and is looking to establish new more sustainable production processes for biochemicals in open systems. To accommodate the research of SIAM, a new bioreactor laboratory was built at Radboud University. The new laboratory contains 12 new state-of-the-art bioreactor systems to investigate anaerobic ammonium and methane-oxidizing bacteria. 

 

The research at the new centre is already generating results. Recent highlights of the group include the isolation of a prokaryotic organelle from the anammox bacteria.1 Proteomic analysis showed that all proteins for the production and conversion of the rocket fuel hydrazine are located in this organelle and stable isotope assays showed that the organelle can make dinitrogen gas from ammonium and nitrite. In addition, the major S-layer protein of anammox bacteria was isolated and characterized.2 Furthermore, by excellent scientific sleuthing it was discovered that anammox bacteria after all do contain peptidoglycan in the cell wall. 3 In collaboration with geoscientists from Utrecht University, the iron-dependent anaerobic oxidation of methane was observed in sediments of the Bothnian Sea, and subsequent batch incubations with stable isotope confirmed this activity in the laboratory.4

 

In the course of 2014, several of the young scientists of the Department of Microbiology at Radboud University were awarded prestigious personals grants. Dr. Boran Kartal received an ERC Starting Grant to investigate new more sustainable wastewater treatment systems. Dr. Laura van Niftrik was awarded a Volkswagen seed grant to establish a genetic system for anammox planctomycetes and Dr. Sebastian Luecker received a Veni grant to investigate the biochemistry of nitrite-oxidizing bacteria. Ph.D. students Muriel van Teeseling and Olivia Rasigraf were awarded with Frye international mobility stipendia. Senior staff of the group have also been very successful, Dr. Huub Op den Camp was awarded an ERC Advanced Grant to study the microbiology of acid volcano systems.

 

The preparations for a new international Master’s program in microbiology that will start on 1 September 2015 are in full swing. The programme combines the educational efforts of both environmental and medical microbiologists of Radboud University (www.ru.nl/masters/microbiology). It will be the first microbiology Master’s program in The Netherlands to continue the excellent tradition established by the Dutch School of Microbiology that befits the motto of Martinus W. Beijerinck: “Fortunate those that are starting now.” 

 

Professor Jetten was elected to the membership of EMBO in 2014. 

 

References

1. Neumann et al. (2014) Molecular Microbiology 94(4): 794–802.

2. van Teeseling et al. (2014) Journal of Bacteriology 196(1): 80–89.

3. van Teeseling et al. (2015) Nature Communication 6: 6878-6884.

3. Egger et al. (2015) Environmental Science & Technology 2015 49(1): 277–283.

 

Watch a video: The hunt for impossible bacteria