Scientists at the Radboud University Nijmegen in the Netherlands reported that they had gained insights into a remarkable bacterium that can live without oxygen and transforms ammonium, the ingredient of urine, into hydrazine, a rocket fuel.
The so-called anammox, which stands for anaerobic ammonium oxidation, germs caused a sensation when they were first identified in the 1990s, but finding out what the bacterium can be used for is taking time.
In a letter published by the British science journal Nature, the team of researchers reported they had identified the molecular mechanism by which the bugs do their fuel conversion. “Proving this was quite a feat,” said Mike Jetten, professor of microbiology at the university’s Institute for Water and Wetland Research.
“We had to deploy a range of new experimental methods. In the end, we managed to isolate the protein complex responsible for hydrazine production, a beautifully red mixture.”
The team’s work initially piqued NASA’s interest, but this faded when the US space agency learned that only small quantities of precious hydrazine are produced, “nothing like enough to get a rocket to Mars,” said Jetten. “Now we are accurately determining the crystal structure of the protein complex. Perhaps we can improve the production process if we have a better understanding of how the protein complex fits together.”