Two research papers from a UW-Madison geoscience lab highlighted how a group of bacteria uses iron in a similar way that animals use oxygen, according to a university news release.
Eric Roden, a professor of geoscience at UW-Madison and senior author of the papers, said these studies can have practical applications in the search of life in space and shed light on how life arose.
Doctoral student Nathan Fortney and research scientist Shaomei He also led the exploration at Chocolate Pots hot spring in Yellowstone National Park of how cultured organisms changed the number of electrons in the iron compounds.
The researchers used advanced genome sequencing instruments at the Biotechnology Center on campus to identify strings of DNA in the genomes.
“Instead of going through the long, laborious and often unsuccessful process of isolating strains, we apply genomic tools to understand how the organisms were doing what they were doing in mixed communities,” Roden said in the release.
The researchers found unknown bacteria capable of iron metabolism, and received genetic data on a unique capacity that some of them have: the ability to transport electrons in both directions across the cell’s outer membrane.
Roden and He said these studies are relevant for understanding the significance of microbes in Earth’s evolution and have implications on the search for life in space.
“Our support comes from NASA’s astrobiology institute at UW–Madison,” Roden said. “It’s possible that on a rocky planet like Mars, life could rely on iron metabolism instead of oxygen.”