Microorganisms function based on the genes encoded in their genomes. Defining the biochemical function of the products of these genes, termed functional genomics, is an important endeavor. Only after the functions of the many unknown genes are identified can the true metabolic diversity present in our planet's organisms be assessed. This work is concerned with discovering the genes involved with biosynthetic reactions in organisms that produce methane. It will establish the biochemical function of the proteins that operate in pathways involved in coenzyme biosynthesis in methane producing microorganisms. The applications of this knowledge can range from reducing greenhouse gas emissions to efficiently producing methane as a source of energy from anthropogenic waste. Worldwide, methanogenic microorganisms produce more than 400 million tons of the greenhouse gas methane each year as part of the global carbon cycle. Another reason to study the metabolism of these organisms is the desire to uncover the nature of the chemical reactions that were occurring in the oceans after the early earth's surface cooled enough to have hot liquid oceans where life could evolve. These reactions are described as 'protobiochemistry.' Protobiochemistry can be revealed as "metabolic fossils" or remnants of primitive metabolism that may still be functioning in present day methane producing organisms.
Science itself is the most effective tool for motivating students to become the next generation of young scientists. Through the research described above, students will be exposed to many different scientific disciplines and methods, including but not limited to enzymology, molecular biology, organic synthesis, different forms of spectroscopy, bioinformatics, protein chemistry, analytical biochemistry, prebiotic chemistry, and anaerobic microbiology, all in one setting. Undergraduate students will participate in this work through undergraduate research in the lab. Over the last 10 years, 1-2 undergraduate students have worked on a continual basis in the White laboratory. Students are expected to publish one original reviewed scientific work during their lab time, further preparing them for a future career in the sciences. The discovery of new biochemical pathways and the associated genes and enzymes has a far-reaching impact both within the scientific community and also to society at large. The work outlined here will not only further our understanding of coenzyme biosynthesis and methane producing organisms, but may also provide a glimpse into some of the chemistry used by the earliest forms of life. In this post-genomics era every newly characterized enzyme aids in the annotation of many genomes and provides insight into the metabolic potential of diverse organisms, both benign and pathogenic. Every gene identified as to function also adds to the toolbox for metabolic engineering.