Irish scientists uncover link between gut bacteria and autism

Another clue into the molecular processes of autism.

Irish scientists uncover link between gut bacteria and autism –


Related Article:

Bacteria boost fixes symptoms of autism in mice – Article in New Scientist 

For the Inner Artist in All of Us: Illustrated Bacterium

animated bacteria




This one is for you, Jac.

Combing the Earth One Genome at a Time: In Pursuit of “The Next Big Thing” in Sustainability

animated bacteria, cellulose, bioenergy
Illustration of Clostridium thermocellum cells (orange) on the surface of a cellulose fibril (multicolor)

There is one thing that can be said about scientists: they’re never satisfied…thankfully. Observation and curiosity leave them on a never-ending quest to understand Mother Nature and improve humanity. One great example of this is the field of alternative energy science. Through the efforts of the Bioenergy Research Centers (BRCs) and Joint Genome Institute within the U.S. Department of Energy‘s Office of Science, there is a perpetual search for Nature’s best metabolic machinery. This search requires thinking outside the box and sometimes outside your comfort zone. For example, last year researchers from the Joint BioEnergy Institute published findings that originated in the El Yunque National Forest in Puerto Rico, a rain forest and home to Enterobacter lignolyticus, a bacterium that is tolerant to ionic liquids (liquids with salts that are not crystaline, but are liquid). This discovery began with the observation that soil microbes at El Yunque have a high rate of organic decomposition and tolerance to osmotic pressure.

Another example are bacteria from the genus Caldicellulosiruptor that are able to degrade biomass, however, they live in extremely thermophilic environments like hot springs from New Zealand to Russia to Yellowstone. Researchers at the BioEnergy Science Center were able to isolate these microbes and start characterizing the enzymes responsible for degrading woody biomass into simple sugars.

Or what about  researchers at the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center essentially dissecting a leaf-cutter ant colony in Panama to examine its ecology; from the fungus the ants use as food, to the bacteria that help degrade the leaves. Or what about isolating microbes from termite guts or wasp guts?

Then there is the champion for raising scientific curiosities, Clostridium thermocellum which holsters woody biomass degradation factories attached to the outside of its cell membrane. These factories are known as cellulosomes.

Image: Cells of the Rhizosphere

I have a blog post that I have been trying to write for weeks about the soil and rhizosphere. Until I can get a handle on it, here is a little image I did today to illustrate how cells initiate colonization of plant root surface. An example bacterial species would be Azospirillum brasilense, a personal favorite.

animated bacteria



Image: E. coli on cellulosic biomass

I finally rendered a somewhat satisfactory image of E. coli degrading cellulosic biomass to go along with my last post. 

animated bacteria, bioenergy,
E. coli on cellulose (light colored) with lignin (dark color). Can’t tell, but lignin molecules are actual lignin polymers I put together

Germs, for lack of a better word, are good. Germs are right. Germs work. Germs clarify, cut through, and capture, the essence of the evolutionary spirit.

To paraphrase a great movie classic, Wall Street. 

I want to change focus a bit, from bacteria benefiting mankind by cleaning up our messes and providing electricity, to another great benefit of bacteria; their pliability. It is very easy to manipulate the genetics of bacteria (see Biohacking). This owes to their genome structure and lack of miles of “junk” DNA. This means scientists can insert genes from one bacterium into a more well-known bacterium, like E. coli, to perform a novel function and, in a way, reverse millions of years of evolution. For example, in 2011, Jay Keasling and his team at the Joint BioEnergy Institute (JBEI) modified E. coli to degrade switchgrass biomass into sugars. Not only that, the E. coli fermented the sugars into gasoline, diesel, or jet fuel without enzyme additives. Think about it; E. coli, a bacterium that colonizes the digestive tracts of mammals, is able to breakdown plant material and directly convert it into fuel. That is amazing. I’m working on an illustration to depict this, so check back. 


Quiz: Is this a picture of a real bacterium?

animated bacteria GIF, microbiology, bacteria gif, animated gif