Hooray for the day job!

June 23, 2006

My work in the lab went extraordinarily well this week. I’m not sure if I can describe it in a way that will make sense and be interesting to outsiders, but I’ll give it a shot. Consider this entry an experiment that may or may not be worth replicating!

As some of you know, I study the metabolism of Methylobacterium extorquens AM1, which has the unusual ability to use one-carbon compounds such as methanol (CH3OH) as its sole source of carbon and energy. (When someone at a party asks me what I do, I usually say, “I study bacteria that can grow using alcohol as their only source of food.” This often prompts comments such as, “Yeah, I once had a college roomate who was kind of like that….”) In determining how these bacteria process the methanol, I measure such things as their production of carbon dioxide (CO2) under various conditions. Still with me? Well, the rates of CO2 production in a couple of recent experiments seemed unbelievably high, so I spent most of Wednesday poring over my lab notebooks and Excel spreadsheets, looking for calculation errors. I eventually did find an error that, when corrected, dropped one set of numbers back into the normal range. But what about that absurdly high CO2 flux in the mutant strain? No calculation errors there…. Could it be real?!? (Cue the scientist-on-the-brink-of-a-discovery music. I’m hearing some plucked violins, a few triangle taps on the offbeats….)

Since production of CO2 requires oxygen (O2), rapid CO2 production should be accompanied by rapid O2 consumption. Too bad we don’t have an O2 electrode…. I realized, however, that if I put the mutant strain in a closed vial (as I normally do anyway for my CO2 experiments), it should run out of O2 much faster than the normal (“wild-type”) strain and should thus stop producing CO2 much sooner. So I tested this hypothesis. Just as I predicted, the mutant produced lots of CO2 for a couple minutes and then stopped, whereas the wild type made CO2 at a much slower rate but for a much longer period of time! (Triumphant trumpet solo goes here.) In conclusion, the mutant is indeed capable of generating CO2 much more quickly than the wild type. Exactly how it does this will be a topic of future research.

So, did that text help you taste the excitement of the discovery?

Didn’t think so. At least I tried.

Perhaps a more transparent anecdote is this: I was so pleased with my data that even another disappointing Wednesday night track race (8:49.2 for 3000m) failed to dampen my spirits for long.

Data to die for

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