Caffeine-hungry Bacteria Found

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Humans aren't the only life-forms that rely on caffeine to get them through the morning.

Researchers at the University of Iowa found a species of bacteria capable of breaking down caffeine. The research could help scientists develop better medications as well as find ways to decaffeinate waste from coffee and tea production with minimal impact on the environment.

It started when grad student Ryan Summers and colleagues stepped outside to gather samples from a flowerbed on campus.

"We decided to go to the soil because soil has the largest collection of unknown microorganisms, and we thought that we might be able to find an organism with the built-in machinery — enzymes and genes — needed to break down caffeine," Summers told Discovery News in an email.

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The team found the bacteria after giving the soil sample caffeine as its only source of energy.

The bacterium, called Pseudomonas putida CBB5, can break down caffeine into carbon dioxide and ammonia, removing the hydrogen and carbon chemical bonds, also called methyl groups. Summers writes in a research summary that his team's analysis is the first to describe which genes are at play while each bacterium degrades caffeine, molecule by molecule.

Caffeine-degrading bacteria have been isolated since the 1970s, Summers said, but his research contributes to understanding one method bacteria use to get the job done. It turns out removing methyl groups from caffeine — a process called N-demethylation — is what reduces caffeine and another compound called theophylline into xanthine, which is easier for organisms to handle.

"What we have done for the first time is show what kind and how many — at least four — enzymes there are that break down caffeine by N-demethylation in bacteria," Summers said. "It's kind of like saying that we've found the gears that make the hands on a clock turn."

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Knowing which enzymes remove methyl groups can help researchers find cheaper, more efficient ways to produce synthetic drugs to treat asthma and blood and heart problems.

Caffeine is often found in coffee, teas, chocolate, soda and more, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine.

The newly discovered bacteria may come in handy for coffee and tea producers wanting to reduce the amount of caffeine waste released into the environment. Summers writes the bacteria may have applications for decaffeinating production waste, making it usable as livestock feed or even raw material for biofuels.

Photo by sirspacepilot/Flickr.com

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