Scientists Alter Bacteria to Help Fight Climate Change

Category: Science/Environment


Unlocking Word Meanings

Read the following words/expressions found in today’s article.

  1. strain / streɪn / (n) – a certain type of organism

    The new strain of this virus causes more severe symptoms.

  2. live off (something) / lɪv ɔf / (phrasal) – to get nourishment by eating a particular type of food

    Koalas live off eucalyptus leaves.

  3. makeup / ˈmeɪkˌʌp / (n) – the structure of something

    They used a microscope to study the makeup of the soil.

  4. modification / ˌmɒd ə fɪˈkeɪ ʃən / (n) – a change made in something

    After some modifications, the machine worked more efficiently.

  5. tackle / ˈtæk əl / (v) – to try to solve a problem or difficulty

    Experts are looking for new ways to tackle air pollution.


Read the text below.

Scientists have modified the genes of a certain type of bacterium to use it to fight climate change.

Escherichia coli [esh-uhRIK-ee-uh KOH-lahy] (E. coli) is a kind of bacterium that is usually found in human and animal intestines. While some strains are usually associated with food poisoning, most types of this bacterium are not harmful to humans and are useful in creating biofuels. In a study published in the journal Biology Letters, scientists found that aside from its known benefits, E. coli bacteria can be altered to live off carbon dioxide (CO2) in a similar way that plants do.

The team wanted to find out whether modifying E. coli’s genetic makeup could possibly switch the bacteria’s sugar-based diet to a CO2-based one. The scientists added genes to an E. coli strain that enabled it to chemically process CO2. They also removed genes that are involved in processing sugar.

To test the effectiveness of the modifications, the scientists left the bacteria in the lab for 200 days without any sugar. After this period, they found that the bacteria survived.

Despite the finding, the scientists believe that more research is required for the modified bacteria to be useful in tackling climate change. Currently, the modified E. coli bacteria consume CO2 for their growth, but the amount of gas they release is greater than the amount they consume.

However, if this technique is developed well, the modified bacteria can have a lot of potential uses, according to Professor Francis Sargent of Newcastle University. Aside from being used to cut down CO2 emissions, bacteria may also be modified to produce important medical substances like insulin.

Viewpoint Discussion

Enjoy a discussion with your tutor.

Discussion A

• What do you think are the pros and cons of using bacteria for research? Discuss.
• If you could modify a bacterial strain to have a special function (e.g. consume CO2), what abilities would you like it to have? Discuss.

Discussion B

• Do you support the modification of genes of live organisms (e.g. bacteria, plants, animals, humans) as a method for research? Discuss.
• How can we ensure that this method will not be abused in research (e.g. set strict rules)? Explain.