The world of microorganisms is complicated, but this week our CEO tries to make things simple. Read the article below and watch for the next one:
A microorganism is like a tiny chemical factory that can make hundreds or thousands of different molecules. Some molecules are common to all microorganisms – actually, to all living beings – and are used to build up the components that are essential for life in all cells. Other molecules are specific to certain microorganisms – they represent the language of those microorganisms. Experts would call them “natural products” or “specialized metabolites”. For the sake of simplicity, I’ll just call them “molecules”.
Unlike human-created factories, where chemical reactions may require harsh conditions, oil-derived chemicals and often lead to toxic waste, microorganisms carry out all chemical reactions in water – the main component of every living cell – and at the temperature of their environment. As everything in nature gets recycled, the waste products of one microorganism can be nutrients for a different one: quel che non ammazza ingrassa!
Chemical reactions are carried out by enzymes, the workhorses of every cell. Enzymes transform nutrients taken from outside into the building blocks necessary for life. They also transform these building blocks into the molecules I am talking about. Like an endless game of Lego bricks, smaller molecules can be put together into different shapes, sizes, colors and embellished with different decorations. Now and then, one microorganism will learn how to make a new color or shape of Lego brick and start experimenting with it. After millions of years at play, the result is an amazing number of different molecules.
In a microbial cell, at one extreme some enzymes make a particular chemical reaction and the resulting molecule can be picked up and transformed by other enzymes, leading to complex networks of chemical reactions. At the other extreme, enzymes can be organized in sophisticated assembly lines, where each enzyme receives a molecule from the preceding enzyme, transforms it into a different molecule and passes it onto the next enzyme, and so on. In any case, molecules are made with a reproducibility that human-made processes struggle to achieve.
When we communicate, whether in written, oral or sign language, our message needs to reach our audience. The same goes for molecules: if they are to be used for communication, they must get out of an individual cell and go into the extracellular world. This is done through “molecular gateways” that recognize specific molecules and take them out of the cell or bring them in.
Looking at microorganisms, the molecules they make and how they do it is an amazing experience, filled with surprises and exciting discoveries!