May 24, 2011 at 3:22 PM ET
Many people say they can't live without caffeine, but few of us would actually perish in the absence of our morning coffee ritual. For the bacterium Pseudomonas putida CBB5 that isn't the case. It really does live on caffeine, according to new research presented today.
The caffeine-munching bacterium was found in a flower bed on the University of Iowa campus.
Ryan Summers, a doctoral student there, identified four digestive proteins that it uses to break down caffeine, which allows it to live and grow, he explains in a summary of his research presented at a meeting of the American Society for Microbiology in New Orleans.
"This work, for the first time, demonstrates the enzymes and genes utilized by bacteria to live on caffeine," he writes.
Caffeine is composed of carbon, nitrogen, hydrogen and oxygen. The bacteria break caffeine down into carbon dioxide and ammonia. Ammonia is a compound of nitrogen and hydrogen.
Further testing showed that the compounds formed during the breakdown of caffeine are natural building blocks for drugs used to treat asthma, improve blood flow and stabilize heart arrhythmias. Since these drugs are difficult to synthesize chemically, Summers and colleagues think their bacteria could ease production of these drugs and lower their costs.
What's more, the bacteria could be employed to clean up after us human caffeine junkies, Summers notes in the research summary.
"The caffeine digestive proteins could also be used to remove caffeine and related compounds from large quantities of waste generated from coffee and tea processing industries, which pollute the environment. The decaffeinated waste from these industries can be used as animal feed and for production of transportation fuel."
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