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Bacteria show new route to making oxygen

Discovery adds to the few known biological pathways

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1:42pm, March 24, 2010

Microbiologists have discovered bacteria that can produce oxygen by breaking down nitrite compounds, a novel metabolic trick that allows the bacteria to consume methane found in oxygen-poor sediments.

Previously, researchers knew of three other biological pathways that could produce oxygen. In photosynthesis, microbes or plants containing chlorophyll grow by gleaning energy from the sun, releasing oxygen as a waste product. In the two other schemes, cells generate oxygen — typically for their own internal use — by using enzymes to break down oxygen-containing substances such as chlorates, says Katharina Ettwig, a microbiologist at Radboud University Nijmegen in the Netherlands.

The newly discovered pathway  opens up new possibilities for understanding how and where oxygen can be created, Ettwig and her colleagues report in the March 25 Nature.

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