COOL Classroom 2.1

Discover A Bacterial Brunch

Mom was Right…Chew Your Food!

Just like you and I need enzymes to survive, so do bacteria. Not everything you eat is able to fit into your mouth and be swallowed in one piece. For example, what steps are involved in breaking down a pizza into molecules that can be used by your body for energy? Well, unless you swallow a pizza whole, you are likely to go through the following process:

  1. The pizza is cut into slices.
  2. You break the slices into smaller pieces by taking bites.
  3. You break the bites into smaller pieces by chewing them.
  4. Saliva in your mouth further moistens the pizza making it easier to chew.
  5. The chewed food is swallowed and eventually reduced to molecules by enzymes in your stomach and intestines.

I’m Hungry…Cut to the Chase!

Bacteria and other microbes get their energy from transporting molecules across their cell membranes. In relation to their small size, just about every piece of “food” for bacteria is relatively large. In order for bacteria to get the nutrition they need, the molecules must be small enough to pass through the bacteria’s cell membrane. Therefore, they have the following options if they want to “eat.”

  1. Use the small molecules that already exist in their surrounding environment.
  2. Rely on natural processes to create new small molecules in their surrounding environment.
  3. Develop a way to break down large molecules into more manageable smaller molecules they can use.

Since small molecules are not always readily available (1) and relying on natural processes to break large molecules down into smaller ones can be SLOW (2) bacteria need a mechanism they can rely on to actively create molecules small enough that they can absorb into their cells (3).
Without hands, teeth, or physical tools, bacteria use enzymes to chemically break down larger organic molecules into smaller ones that can pass through their cell membranes. These enzymes are produced inside the bacteria, and are released through their membrane to act along the surface of and on the outside of their cells. Bacteria and other microbes (phytoplankton) in the ocean are constantly creating and using ectoenzymes (enzymes that function on or outside the cell) to “cut” large molecules of organic matter in the water to smaller more usable molecules.

The Positive Power of Enzymes

The enzymes bacteria secrete decompose dead plant and animal tissue and convert them to organic and inorganic nutrients. These elements or nutrients and other byproducts are reabsorbed by the bacteria for nutrition or are left behind as food for other organisms.

Along with keeping bacteria and other microorganisms alive and kicking, ectoenzymes produced by marine bacteria may also serve as indicators of the conditions within the overall marine environment. Marine scientists can selectively target and monitor certain enzymes related to specific types of bacteria.

In fact, scientists are currently finding that some unique enzymes produced by marine bacteria are increasingly valuable in biotechnology due to their range of unusual properties. These enzymes have been found useful in industrial, medical, cosmetic and food applications. It may be possible that in the near future, new medical drugs will be developed from these marine resources to help fight cancer and other deadly diseases. Will you be the one to make this discovery?