03/29/2013 11:12 am ET Updated Mar 29, 2013

Caffeine-Addicted Bacteria, Created In Lab, May Help Combat Water Pollution

It looks like humans aren't the only ones who need a daily caffeine fix.

A team of microbiologists at the University of Texas, Austin, has genetically engineered bacteria to live solely on caffeine, creating microbial caffeine fiends for the first time ever.

In 2011, researchers found a soil bacterium Pseudomonas putida CBB5 living in a flowerbed at the University of Iowa capable of metabolizing caffeine. Now, microbiologist Jeffrey Barrick and his colleagues have transplanted the genetic “gear” that metabolizes caffeine into E. Coli—which grows quickly and is easier to handle.

"E. coli is a very well understood microorganism and there are many genetic tools available to work with it," Dr. Barrick told The Huffington Post. "It's a workhorse of biotechnology."

And what came out was a lean, mean, caffeine-eating machine that uses specialized enzymes to break caffeine molecules down into carbon dioxide and ammonia.

But the genetically modified E. Coli may serve more purpose than just reminding us of our coffee-slurping selves. Caffeine gets into the environment from coffee, energy drinks, soda, and certain pharmaceuticals, and has become a water pollutant in highly populated areas. But microbiologists hope these caffeine-craving bacteria could get rid of this pollution—simply by feasting on it.

The researchers also say the bacteria could provide a way to detoxify the nutrient-rich but highly toxic material that is left after separating coffee beans from coffee berries. The research, published in the journal ACS Synthetic Biology, could also open the door for new medications for asthma and other lung diseases, made from the chemicals given off by these bacteria.

"The addicted E. coli could be used as a biosensor to monitor levels of caffeine in heavily polluted environments, just as it could be used to measure how much caffeine is actually in the espresso from your local coffee shop," Barrick said.



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