Endowed with resourceful molecular machinery, microbes can adapt to environments as unappealing as oil slicks and toxic-waste dumps. Some bacteria can even bind to heavy metals such as mercury–a trick that researchers at the University of California, Riverside are now exploiting for treating contaminated water.
When exposed to mercury, the bacterium Escherichia coli synthesizes a protein that binds specifically to the heavy metal. Wilfred Chen and his colleagues set out to take advantage of that protein for cleanup operations.
First, the scientists genetically engineered bacteria to create a molecule containing both the bacterial protein and an artificial form of the muscle protein elastin. This form tends to clump when heated. The scientists next extracted the resulting compound.