Ever heard of a bacterium that transforms ammonium, an ingredient of urine, into rocket fuel hydrazine? Scientists and researchers said that they have gained insights into that fantastic bacterium that lives without oxygen.
Anammox – anaerobic ammonium oxidation – germs caused a wave of sensation when they were first identified in the 1990s, but uncovering their secrets is taking an unduly long time.
Researchers at Radboud University Nijmegen in the Netherlands reported that they had identified the molecular mechanism by which the bacteria do their fuel-trick.
Mike Jetten, professor of microbiology at the university’s Institute for Water and Wetland Research, said that they had to employ a lot of new experimental methods. In the end, they managed to isolate the protein complex responsible for hydrazine production, a red mixture.
Though the discovery elated NASA first, their enthusiasm ebbed away when the space agency learned that only small quantities of precious hydrazine are produced, “nothing like enough to get a rocket to Mars,” said Jetten.
“Now we are accurately determining the crystal structure of the protein complex. Perhaps we can improve the production process if we have a better understanding of how the protein complex fits together.”
Anammox is now used commercially in water purification because it is so energy-efficient in breaking down ammonia.
It also has potential applications as a biofuel, cleaning up sewerage without the need for pumps to provide air, and providing methane in return.
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