Many organisms, ranging from mammals to small single-celled algae, are capable of transforming inorganic atoms into elaborate three-dimensional minerals in a process commonly referred to as biomineralization. These biominerals are used as teeth, skeletons, protective shells and even navigational devices. Understanding biomineralization at a molecular level can also lead to novel applications that are informed by the special properties of biominerals and the ease by which they are built by organisms under ambient conditions. The Komeili lab studies one such biomineralization process: the production of nanometer-sized magnets by magnetotactic bacteria (MTB).
MTB produce iron-based magnetic particles within subcellular organelles called magnetosomes. Chains of magnetosomes act as compass needles to passively align cells to the Earth’s magnetic field and provide a general guide to find low oxygen environments more quickly. Interestingly, many animals can make iron-based magnetic particles that have, at least in some cases, been implicated in magnetoreception. The Komeili lab has focused much of their effort on uncovering, and elucidating the function of, magnetosome formation genes in Magnetospirillum magneticum AMB-1, a genetically accessible model organism.
Current efforts aim to define the specific functions of the proteins encoded by these genes, and then to leverage this information to develop magnetosome-based applications. In addition, the Komeili Lab is interested in understanding the broad diversity of magnetosome formation by studying various species of magnetotactic bacteria.