Genomics and Cell Biology: August 2012

With support from the NASA Astrobiology Program, researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have discovered a new bacterial gene that could provide clues about how life survives in some of Earth's most extreme environments.

The gene codes for a protein, named HpnR, that is responsible for producing bacterial lipids known as 3-methylhopanoids. These lipids could help prepare nutrient-starved microbes to make a sudden appearance in nature when conditions are favorable. It allows the organisms to survive in extreme, oxygen-depleted environments until food -- such as methane and the oxygen needed to metabolize it -- become available.

The lipid produced by the HpnR protein may also be used as a biomarker in rock layers to identify dramatic changes in oxygen levels throughout Earth's history.