These germs join carbon to silicon.

Nature reports on a critter in Iceland’s hot springs that binds silicon to carbon – which could lead to all sorts of weird breakthroughs:

Researchers have learned to bind carbon and silicon together using artificial catalysts. But Frances Arnold, a chemical engineer at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, wanted to test whether some of life’s enzymes could do that too, given the opportunity.

By scouring protein databases, she and her colleagues found a few dozen promising enzymes. After some screening, they settled on one from an extremophile bacterium that lives in Icelandic underwater hot springs, called Rhodothermus marinus. They synthesized the gene for this protein and inserted it into E. coli bacteria.

Their guess turned out to be correct: the enzyme could catalyse silicon–carbon bonding — if fed the right silicon-containing precursors. (The enzyme would not normally do this, because bacteria don’t naturally produce silicon-containing compounds). “It’s remarkable that nature is poised to do all sorts of wild things in the presence of this new manmade food,” Arnold says.

“This opens up entirely new opportunities in pharmaceutical research and may lead to the discovery of new drugs,” says Yitzhak Apeloig, who specializes in organic chemistry at the Technion Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa.

The findings could also help to address basic questions about the early evolution of life, Arnold says, and in particular whether its disdain of silicon was happenstance or not. “We can start to explore what are the costs and benefits of incorporating silicon into life.”

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