Reduce. Reuse. Recycle. We hear this mantra time and again. When it comes to carbon—the “Most Wanted” element in terms
of climate change—nature has got reuse and recycle covered. However, it’s up to us to reduce. Scientists at Harvard Medical School are trying to meet
this challenge by learning more about the carbon cycle, that is, the process by which carbon moves from the atmosphere into plants, oceans, soils, the Earth’s crust, and back into the atmosphere again.

One of the biggest movers and shakers is the lowly cyanobacteria, an
ocean-dwelling, one-celled organism. Pamela Silver, HMS professor of systems
biology
, and colleagues have uncovered details about how this bacteria
fixes, or digests, carbon. These bacteria build miniature factories inside
themselves that turn carbon into fuel.

Silver and her colleagues report online in the journal Science that the bacteria organize these factories
spatially, revealing a structural sophistication not often seen in
single-celled organisms. This regular and predictable spacing improves the
efficiency of carbon processing. In the future, an understanding of the
mechanisms that govern this spatial organization may help improve the
efficiency of designer bacteria engineered to produce carbon-neutral fuels
such as biodiesel and hydrogen.

The rod-shaped cyanobacteria are among the most abundant organisms on earth.
Forty percent of the carbon in the carbon cycle is reused and recycled
through these tiny creatures. To process carbon, cyanobacteria build
soccer-ball-shaped structures inside themselves called carboxysomes. These
tiny factories absorb carbon dioxide and convert it into sugar, which the
bacteria then use to produce energy.

“The ocean is just packed with these bacteria. By studying them, we’re
understanding more about how the earth works,” said Silver, who is also on
the faculty of the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at
HMS. “I’m blown away by what’s happening in the ocean and what we don’t
understand about it. There are a lot of things in the ocean that are going
to be useful to us.”

The research team, led by co-first authors, research fellows David Savage
and Bruno Afonso, attached a fluorescent tag to proteins involved in
building the carboxysome, then grew the tagged bacteria under a microscope.

The resulting images revealed that, instead of being randomly numbered and
haphazardly placed, cyanobacteria build carboxysomes in numbers that scale
with their size, and they space the factories evenly along their length.
(see image)

The finding adds evidence for new ways to think about bacteria. “We had this
idea of bacteria as a bag of enzymes, but that has been completely
shattered,” said Afonso.

A single protein, called parA, acts as a kind of inner-bacterium stage
manager, arranging the carboxysomes in a neat, single-file row, the
researchers found. When they disabled the bacteria’s ability to make the
protein, the carboxysomes were distributed far more randomly.

The cyanobacteria lacking parA were also less “fit” for survival, said
Savage. While wild-type bacteria cells have a consistent number of
carboyxsomes, which in turn optimizes carbon processing and fitness, the
knockout bacterium created daughter cells whose numbers of carboxysomes
ranged from none to an excess. The daughter cells with few or no
carboxysomes divide more slowly and also process fifty percent less carbon
than daughter cells at the other end of the spectrum. (see video 1)

By tagging parA in wild-type bacteria, they discovered interesting dynamics
in the protein. Thousands of parA proteins repeatedly cluster together and
shoot quickly from one end of the bacterium to the other. (see video 2)

“It’s amazing that you can generate this regularity and symmetry potentially
from a single protein,” said Savage. “It’s amazing that it is somehow tuned
by the dynamics of the protein.” The researchers have not yet identified the
exact mechanism parA uses to govern the spacing.

Many other bacteria also have the parA protein, which is known for
separating chromosomes during cell division. “This work highlights how
bacteria cobble together spare parts to achieve similar goals such as
organization and segregation,” said David Rudner, HMS assistant professor of
microbiology and molecular genetics, who was not involved in the study.

These findings may help synthetic biologists one day create designer
bacteria.

“Knowledge about how cells create and deploy specialized factories like the
carboxysome opens the way to creating other kinds of mini factories that
could perform useful functions,” said Richard Losick, Harvard University
professor of molecular and cellular biology, who was not involved in the
study.

Silver’s lab is looking into whether the carboxysome might be useful for
optimizing the production of hydrogen by engineered bacteria. One challenge
in designing hydrogen-producing bacteria is that the enzymes that produce
hydrogen are sensitive to oxygen. The carboxysome may help solve this
problem because its outer shell blocks out oxygen, protecting the enzymes
inside from its toxic effects.

This research was funded by the US Army Research Office.