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Dynamics in natural membranes from hyperthermophile and mesophile bacteria

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Dynamics measured by neutron scattering correlate with the organization of bioenergetic complexes in natural membranes from hyperthermophile and mesophile bacteria

April 2013

The context:

A better understanding of the microbial world and its ability to survive in extreme conditions (temperature, pressure, salinity, anoxia, …) is vital in many fields of application: biotechnologies and industrial microbiology, processing of waste contaminated by metals or radioactivity, problems of fermentation in food, development of antibiotics against pathogens, etc.
Membranes form the interface between cells and their external environment. In pharmacology, for example, membranes are the primary target for drug development. Bioenergetic systems, i.e. the molecules that allow cells to obtain their energy from the environment, are for the most part located in the membranes.

It is therefore essential to find out as much as possible about the structure and dynamics of membranes. Indeed every membrane has its own specific function and this specificity is reflected in its dynamics (membranes do not all move in the same way).

The study:

Undertaken by J. Peters (UJF-IBS-ILL), M.-T. Giudici-Orticoni (CNRS et Univ. Aix-Marseille), G. Zaccai (ILL-IBS) and M. Guiral (CNRS et Univ. Aix-Marseille) it aimed at comparing two membranes with different functions by measuring their specific motions at molecular level.

Using neutrons it was possible to observe these motions. Just like in a game of billiards, the neutron ball collides with the atom balls that make up the membranes and provides an extremely accurate tool for measuring their motions.

Earlier studies suggested different dynamic organizations of bioenergetic complexes in membranes of bacteria growing at high temperatures. The neutron experiments, conducted on Aquifex aeolicus, which grows optimally at 85°C, were designed to measure and characterize this organization.

For the first time, the team characterised and compared the dynamics of bioenergetic systems in hyperthermophile bacteria (i.e. growing at 65 °) and mesophile bacteria (which grow close to 37°C) by neutron spectroscopy, and established correlations with their biological function. This leads to an improved understanding of bioenergetics in the microbial world.

We used neutron spectroscopy (elastic incoherent neutron scattering) to investigate the molecular dynamics of natural membranes from thermophile and mesophile bacteria. With this technique, neutrons bounce off atoms in the membrane and make it possible to measure their motions.
In the future the same method will be used to study more membranes of other extremophile bacteria, to understand better the correlation between dynamics and biological function in membranes.