Science and Engineering

Colorado State University

Richard Conant, Peter Baas, Claudia Boot, James Henriksen
Fort Collins, CO
$1,000,000
December 2020
 

Life’s most important biochemicals (19 of 20 amino acids, most sugars, etc.) are chiral – they come in one of two possible shapes that are mirror images of each other.  The idea that the shape of an organic molecule – its handedness or chirality – determines whether it is biologically active or not has been an organizing principle of biochemistry dating to Pasteur’s time and has largely been a closed book ever since.  One 3D shape is super abundant (e.g., D-glucose) and the mirror image shape (L-glucose) is thought to be extremely rare or even non-existent in nature.  However, a handful of recent reports have found L-glucose in nature.  After critically considering these anomalies, this team from Colorado State University screened soil samples from across the campus.  To their surprise, every single sample contained bacteria capable of consuming L-glucose.

This shadow biochemical economy has never been observed before.  These results fundamentally challenge the existing paradigm on chirality, which is thought to be integral to life throughout the universe.  The researchers will build on this groundbreaking work by determining the capacity of soil organisms to consume and synthesize a variety of L-sugars, describing their functions in cellular metabolism, and understanding how these processes facilitate microbial growth, survival, and persistence.

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