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Newly Discovered Bacteria Lives on Caffeine

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Think you live on caffeine? You're still no match for a newly described bitty bacteria called Pseudomonas putida CBB5. These little guys can feast on pure caffeine all day—and presumably all night—long. And researchers have now located just how they accomplish this arguably admirable feat.

Celebrated and cursed, caffeine is actually an alluring blend of carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen and oxygen, and the clever bacterium uses specialized enzymes as it "breaks caffeine down into carbon dioxide and ammonia," Ryan Summers, a doctoral researcher in chemical and biochemical engineering at the University of Iowa, said in a prepared statement.

Summers and his colleagues found these caffeine-feeding bacteria lolling in a flowerbed on the University of Iowa campus. Although that hardly seems like a logical place for such a stimulated species, Summers explained that it is far from jolting. "Due to the extensive presence of caffeine in the environment, it is not surprising that there are bacteria that can 'eat' this molecule for growth and reproduction," he wrote in a summary of his new research, set to be presented May 24 at the 111th General Meeting of the American Society for Microbiology in New Orleans.

And the finding could some day have implications outside of a highly caffeinated petri dish (although it's unclear whether caffeine gets the bacteria just as hopped up as it does some humans). "This work, for the first time, demonstrates the enzymes and genes utilized by bacteria to live on caffeine," Summers said, noting that previous research had located caffeine consumption in other microbe species before.

After isolating the suspected genes, the research team inserted them into E. coli strains, which then manufactured the caffeine-digesting enzymes (N-demethylase named NdmA and NdmB).

Summers and his collaborators noted that the enzymes might be useful to develop new medications to treat heart arrhythmias or asthma, or to boost blood flow. The bacteria-generated enzymes could also be scaled up to help break down excess caffeine generated by industry during decaf coffee and tea processing.

But back to living on caffeine: How soon can we expect to see coffee-to-go joints jumping into the research ring?

Credit: Julius Schorzman/Wikimedia Commons

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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