Bacteria are everywhere and, despite what common sense might point out about them, there is no shortage of them that play a fundamental role in ecosystems. This is the case of those who make up the genre rodococo, which have a unique ability to recycle matter in the environment. The work team you lead Héctor Álvarez, director of the Conicet Institute of Biosciences of Patagonia (INBIOP), uses them with the aim of transforming industrial waste into products of biotechnological interest.
Soil is an inexhaustible source of microorganisms and millions can be found in a small piece of land. But Álvarez, during his stay in Germany as an intern, found some hitherto unknown specimens. “I was developing my doctoral thesis and I was looking for original results. He was working with bioplastic-producing bacteria, which showed results similar to other microorganisms. That’s why, I started isolating new bacteria and found some capable of producing oils. Until then, there was no history of microorganisms with these characteristics.”, comments.
Almost three decades later, the research group led by Álvarez continues to work on Comodoro Rivadavia with Rhodococcus. Patagonia, according to the scientist, has the right conditions for the development and evolution of this type of organism.. These bacteria, usually found in desert areas, have evolved in such a way that, when they find nutrients in soils where they are not abundant, they capture them to introduce them into the cell and do not completely degrade them. They partially oxidize this molecule and turn the rest into oil.that is, in a substance that they can store, in the same way that human beings accumulate fat to have an energy reserve.
The waste that bacteria pick
Regarding the ability of these microorganisms to degrade compounds, the working group analyzes the organic composition of different types of waste produced in the country.
“Some agro-industrial residues work better than others as a base to be transformed into oils. We detected in the laboratory that we obtain better results with those with a chemical composition richer in sugars. Waste from the fruit juice and wine production industries, those from the dairy and olive oil industries, for example, are also metabolized by this type of microorganism”, details the scientist.
Each of the industrial wastes requires a suitable bacteria that can degrade them.. In the laboratory, the genetic characteristics of the microorganism are identified to determine which one adapts best. However, sometimes the results are not as expected and new strategies must be sought.
“In a study in which we tried to break down glycerin, we used a bacterium with good capacity to produce oils, but with difficulty in digesting and assimilating this compound, which made the production process very slow”, says Álvarez. So they studied the genetics of this bacterium and others that could digest glycerin quickly and realized that there was a difference in the gene content between these microorganisms. “What we did was swap genes from one microorganism to another so that this now-modified bacterium had the ability to quickly convert glycerin into oil, and that’s what happened.”, he assures.
a big puzzle
“Each advance allows us to put together a big puzzle. We are beginning to understand why these microorganisms transform compounds into so much oil and what distinguishes them from other bacteria that do not”, explains Álvarez.The general programs found in DNA are quite similar to those in other bacteria, but the difference has to do with how these dynamics of genetics are regulated in action.that is, which genes are turned on and off at certain times.
Until the date, studies are carried out on a laboratory scale to generate basic knowledge. However, since INBIOP they are already linked to several companies in the industrial sector. “It is an innovative technology that can be adapted to specific needs to provide solutions to current problems, such as the management of different industrial wastes. In addition, it is useful to produce new products in a sustainable way, such as bacterial oils that can be alternative sources for the production of biofuels, biolubricants or various oleochemicals”, he says.