Bacteria: The Unseen Keepers of Our Planet
Bacteria can break down a staggering diversity of organic compounds in the biosphere. Their ability to do so is essential to maintaining the global carbon cycle and the health of all ecosystems, from the earth’s oceans and soil to the human body.
Bacteria’s astounding capabilities are due to their vast assortment of degradative enzymes and pathways. Dr. Lindsay Eltis, Canada Research Chair in Microbial Catabolism and Biocatalysis, is studying these microbial activities to better understand how they could be used in various industrial processes and as new therapeutic targets.
Eltis and his research team have made pioneering advances in the bacterial degradation of steroids and lignin, two important classes of organic compounds in the biosphere. His team has also discovered a pathway that allows Mycobacterium tuberculosis—the cause of tuberculosis—to grow in its human host. Studying how this works may contribute to developing new treatments for tuberculosis.
His team has also identified the first bacterial enzyme that can break down lignin, which will help in engineering bacterial systems for green chemistry. Effective lignin-transforming biocatalysts will help develop woody biomass as a sustainable feedstock for high-value products, such as resins, carbon fibres and commodity chemicals. This research will reduce our dependence on petroleum products and contribute to revitalizing the forestry industry.
Because of bacteria’s pervasive influence on so many aspects of life on earth, Eltis’ research could have far-reaching impacts in areas as diverse as agriculture, medicine, chemistry, pharmaceuticals and forestry.