Snobbish bugs prefer coffee for beverage

June 8th, 2011 - 2:03 pm ICT by IANS  

Washington, June 8 (IANS) Human beings may have made a cult out of drinking caffeine, but now it seems they are not the only species doing it.

Four different strains of bacteria are so hooked on the beverage that they have it for breakfast, lunch and dinner, according to University of Iowa scientists.

One of them, known as Pseudomonas Putida CBB5, was found in a flowerbed outside an Iowa research lab. The discovery could enable scientists to convert waste from leftover coffee, tea and even chocolate into useful substances.

Caffeine digestive proteins from CBB5 can be used to convert caffeine into building blocks for drugs used to treat asthma, improve blood flow and stabilise irregular heartbeats.

The research team, in a first, identified the gene sequence that enables the bacterium to break down the caffeine compound, according to University of Iowa statement.

Caffeine is found naturally in more than 60 different plants and is composed of carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen and oxygen. Its molecular structure features three clusters of carbon and hydrogen atoms known as methyl groups, enabling caffeine to resist degradation by most bacteria.

Led by Iowa chemical and biochemical engineering doctoral student Ryan Summers, the study found that CBB5 bug uses four newly discovered digestive proteins to break caffeine down into xanthine and then to carbon dioxide and ammonia.

It removes the methyl groups from the molecule — a process called N-demethylation, allowing the bacteria to feed on the nitrogen atoms in the interior of the molecule (xanthine).

“With one or two methyl groups removed, the remainder of the molecule can be used as the base for a number of pharmaceuticals,” Summers said.

“You basically use the new genes and enzymes that could take something we have a lot of — like caffeine — and make drugs that are typically very expensive. And that process could lower the costs for people who need them.”

The decaffeinated waste from these industries could be used for animal feed, or for production of transportation fuel, especially in areas where corn (for ethanol) is scarce.

These findings were presented at the American Society for Microbiology in New Orleans in late May.

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