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Hip Hair from a Hot Microbe

By Kate Ruder

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Weird Science

German scientists have sequenced the genome of a bacterium used in DNA research and also to make cosmetic lotion and hair goop. By looking at its genome, the scientists discovered a host of potential new uses for the microbe, including as a source of vitamin B.

The bacterium, Thermus thermophilus, was originally isolated from a hot spring in Japan 20 years ago; it lives in water 60-80 C (140-176 F).

Three years ago, T. thermophilus hit the beauty business. A French cosmetic supplier uses these bacteria, isolated from the Gulf of California , to formulate an ingredient that cosmetic companies buy to make moisturizers and hair products.

The microbes aren’t actually in cosmetics. Instead the company puts proteins from the fermented bacteria into a patented formula called Venuceane that it says protects skin from the sun’s damaging rays.

Venuceane can be found in moisturizers and a line of upscale, hip hair products called Nolita. One of the products, Whipped Wax, promises to offer “traffic-stopping texture and fierce shine.”

Proteins from the bacterium are also used in the biotechnology industry to make DNA tests. The hardy proteins help carry out certain reactions, known as PCR, at high temperatures.

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The bacterium belongs to the group of Thermus bacteria, which includes some of the first “extremophile” organisms to make money for people. Thermus aquaticus, isolated from hot springs in Yellowstone National Park , is also used in PCR—a $300 million industry.

Thermus are the most studied extremophiles,” says Gerhard Gottscalk of the University of Göttingen in Germany , who led the sequencing effort. Their findings appear in Nature Biotechnology.

The German researchers admit that they had never heard of the microbe being used in skin and hair care products. But they envision other applications for the bacteria.

Gottscalk and his colleagues found a protein in the genome of T. thermophilus that resembles another protein currently in use for cancer therapy. Its potential at this point is purely speculative, says Gottscalk.

The bacterium also produces vitamin B naturally and could be used to manufacture vitamins. Other microbes have been used similarly.

Beyond the benefit to industry, the genome of T. thermophilus ömay help scientists answer basic research questions about how organisms repair their DNA and keep proteins working at high temperatures.

Henne, A. et al. The genome sequence of the extreme thermophile Thermus thermophilus. Nature Biotechnology 22 (Published online April 4, 2004).

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