Winner of Honorable Mention in Nikon’s Small World Competition of 2008.

A coiled, filamentous cyanobacterium Anabaena is visualized via Nomarski differential interference contrast microscopy (600x). Anabaena is known for its nitrogen fixing abilities, and tends to form symbiotic relationships with certain aquatic plants. They are one of four genera of cyanobacteria that produce neurotoxins, which are harmful to local wildlife, as well as farm animals and pets. Production of these neurotoxins is assumed to be an input into its symbiotic relationships, protecting the plant from grazing pressure.

Image courtesy of Petr Znachor, Institute of Hydrobiology - Ceske Budejovice, Czech Republic
Joule Unlimited Claims It Can Make Diesel Fuel With Sun, Water & CO2

Source:  The Huffington Post. 27 February, 2011.

Excerpt: Joule Unlimited has invented a genetically-engineered organism that it says simply secretes diesel fuel or ethanol wherever it finds sunlight, water and carbon dioxide.

The Cambridge, Mass.-based company says it can manipulate the organism to produce the renewable fuels on demand at unprecedented rates, and can do it in facilities large and small at costs comparable to the cheapest fossil fuels.

The skeptics of this method of diesel production via genetically engineered organisms don’t argue the validity of the science behind this extraordinary claim. Rather they question if it’s technologically and economically feasible to extract the diesel from a pool of water where apparently the ratio of water to fuel is high.

I immediately thought of last year’s BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, and how some of the oil had been extracted with a machine that Kevin Costner had developed along with his scientist brother, Dan. Apparently, the machine separates oil from water by centrifuge. A single machine can recover 200 gallons of fuel an hour. This seems an elegant alternative-use solution for the extraction of fuel from a pool of water and oil. The only economic limiting factor is the production costs of centrifuging.

Nevertheless, whatever method they anticipate of extracting the fuel from the water, Joule Unlimited insists that it can produce fuel at a cost of $30 a barrel. 

We’ll see.

One thing worries me: Can this genetically engineered cyanobacterium reproduce? If so, I scarcely can imagine the ecological disaster if this bacterium was let loose in a world rich in sunlight, water, and carbon dioxide. Too bad Crichton is gone; this would make a great sci-fi-that-can-be-true novel. ♠

Biotech company claims to be able to produce fossil fuels for US$30 a barrel.

US Biotech company Joule Unlimted received a patent last year for a “proprietry organism" – a genetically engineered cyanobacterium that produces liquid hydrocarbons: diesel fuel, jet fuel and gasoline. This breakthrough technology, the company says, will deliver renewable supplies of liquid fossil fuel almost anywhere on Earth, in essentially unlimited quantity and at an energy-cost equivalent of $30 (U.S.) a barrel of crude oil. It will deliver, the company says, “fossil fuels on demand.”

Unlike biofuel schemes that require ‘feedstock’ to produce fuel, this technology uses only carbon dioxide, sunlight, and water to produce fuels. 

Joule says it now has “a library” of fossil-fuel organisms at work in its Massachusetts labs, each engineered to produce a different fuel - gasoline, diesel, or jet fuel.

While it’s worth taking these claims with a grain of salt (similar schemes have been seen before), this one seems to have a lot more credibility. The World Technology Network just named the company the world’s top corporate player in bio-energy research. Biofuels Digest named it one of the world’s “50 hottest” bio-energy enterprises.

When U.S. Senator John Kerry toured the company’s labs in October, he called the technology “a potential game-changer.” He noted, ironically, that the company’s science is so advanced that it can’t qualify for federal grants or subsidies: The government’s definition of biofuels requires the use of raw-material feedstock.

Captured: the moment photosynthesis changed the world. By Colin Barras

BILLIONS of years ago, a tiny cyanobacterium cracked open a water molecule - and let loose a poison that wrought death and destruction on an epic scale. The microbe had just perfected photosynthesis, a process that freed the oxygen trapped inside water and killed early Earth’s anaerobic inhabitants.

Now, for the first time, geologists have found evidence of the crucial evolutionary stage just before cyanobacteria split water. The find offers a unique snapshot of the moment that made the modern world. With the advent of photosynthesis came an atmosphere dominated by oxygen and, ultimately, the diversity of life forms that we know today.

“This was the biggest change that ever occurred in the biosphere,” says Kevin Redding at Arizona State University in Tempe. “The extinction caused by oxygen was probably the largest ever seen, but at the same time animal life wouldn’t be possible without oxygen.”

Photosynthesis uses light and a source of electrons to generate energy and power an organism. In the world as we know it, that source of electrons is water, with oxygen the waste product. But there are no signs that oxygen was being formed when photosynthesis first appeared around 3.4 billion years ago, so early photosynthesisers probably scavenged electrons by splitting other molecules like hydrogen sulphide instead.

That had changed by about 2.4 billion years ago, when deposits of oxidised minerals tell us that oxygen was beginning to accumulate in the atmosphere. Photosynthesis as we know it had evolved.

To help work out how this happened, Woodward Fischer at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena and his colleagues studied South African rocks that formed just before the 2.4-billion-year mark. Their analysis shows that although the rocks formed in the anoxic conditions that had prevailed since Earth’s formation, all of the manganese in the rock was deposited in an oxidised form.

In the absence of atmospheric oxygen, manganese needs some sort of catalyst to help it oxidise - it won’t react without a bit of help. The best explanation, say Fischer’s team, is that a photosynthetic organism was using manganese as an electron source. That left unstable manganese ions behind, which reacted with water to form the oxides. Fischer presented the findings at the American Geophysical Union’s conference in San Francisco on 6 December.

Every researcher contacted by New Scientist has hailed the significance of the study, in part because the evidence exactly matches what evolutionary theories have predicted.

A close look at today’s plants and algae shows that manganese oxidation is still a vital part of photosynthesis. Within their photosynthetic structures are manganese-rich crystals that provide the electrons to drive photosynthesis. The crystals then snaffle electrons from passing water molecules to restore their deficit. It is this electron raid that cracks open water molecules and generates the oxygen we breathe.

This complicated process must have had simpler roots. In 2007, John Allen at Queen Mary, University of London, and William Martin at the University of Düsseldorf, Germany, suggested one scenario ( They believe that modern photosynthesis was born when early cyanobacteria by chance floated into a watery environment rich in manganese, and quickly adapted to take advantage of the new source of electrons.

Later, because manganese is a relatively scarce resource that can’t be tapped indefinitely, the cyanobacteria evolved a different strategy. They incorporated manganese directly into their photosynthetic structures and used it as a rechargeable battery: draining it of its electrons, but allowing its supplies to be replenished by stealing electrons from another, more plentiful source - water.

What Fischer’s team has found is evidence of the initial step in this process: an anoxic environment rich in manganese that has been stripped of electrons and left in an oxidised state, almost certainly by primitive cyanobacteria. “There had to be some intermediate step in the evolutionary process,” says Redding.

“This is big news,” says Martin. He adds that we can expect publications in the near future that provide more evidence compatible with the theory. “But this somewhat more direct geochemical evidence is really exciting.”

  • From issue 2894 of New Scientist magazine, page 12.
Cyanobacterium with intracellular calcified granules

Photo taken from:

Cyanobacterium, which is known as blue-green algae, is believed to be the drive force for evolution of organisms breathing oxygen, which could be provided by them by taking in carbon dioxide. In the past, there were several types of cyanobacterium being discovered. But this time, Karim Benzerara, Estelle Couradeau and their team found something different.

This new cyanobacterium, which is named Candidatus Gloeomargarit lithophora, was found in an alkaline lake of Alchichica in Mexico. What made it different is, it has mineral in it made up of Calcium, Magnesium, Barium and Strontium. And these mineral with carbonate formed calcified round objects intracellularly. Now what’s the big deal?

Intracellular calcification is a feature never been discovered before this.

There were quite a number of cyanobacteria which is known to form extracellular calcification. In the process of converting Carbon dioxide to oxygen, cyanobacteria may turn to other sources like bicarbonate for photosynthesis when dissolved inorganic carbon is scarce. Conversion of carbon dioxide from bicarbonate raises extracellular pH, inducing the calcification through precipitation. But in Candidatus Gloeomargarit lithophora, calcified granules are, in contrast, observed inside the cell body. And since the percentage of the contents is very different from their environment, they believe the cyanobacterium has some kind of mechanism for it. At the same time, they believe, the cyanobacterium had been using such granules as a ballast to sink lower in the lake where their normal density would not have achieved.

In regard to this finding, the team believe it might be able to fill in the gap in records of cyanobacteria. Genetic analysis by the team suggested the bacterium’s ancient lieanage to the Gloeobacterales. However, such granules did not showed up in a fossil record before, hence, the team is yet to find out more about whether the granules dissolve or not after they die.

Hence, keep your heads up for more findings about the history of cyanobacteria.


Biominéralisation : une cyanobactérie forme des nanoparticules de carbonate intracellulaires from LMCM Laboratoire de Minéralogie & Cosmochimie du Muséum UMR7202

Bony Bacteria: New species builds hard structures inside cells by Rachel Ehrenberg

Scientist discover new kind of blue-green algae with carbonates in their cells by Bob Yirka

A Hard Life for Cyanobacteria by Robert Riding in Geochemistry, Science, p. 427-428.

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