Caffeine and related chemical compounds have become significant water pollutants due to widespread use in coffee, soft drinks, tea, energy drinks, chocolate and certain medications, they said, and a bacterium that could live solely on caffeine could be used to clean up such environmental contamination.
So Jeffrey E. Barrick of the University of Texas at Austin and colleagues set out to genetically engineer just such a bacterium.
Scientists have known a natural soil bacterium, Pseudomonas putida CBB5, can survive just on caffeine, so Barrick's team set out to transfer it genetic ability to metabolize caffeine into E. coli, a biotechnology workhorse that is easy to handle and grow.
The result was bacteria literally addicted to caffeine, the researchers said, which could have applications beyond environmental remediation.
It could also find use as a sensor to measure caffeine levels in beverages, in recovery of nutrient-rich byproducts of coffee processing and for the cost-effective bioproduction of medicines, they said.
Their study was published in the American Chemical Society's journal ACS Synthetic Biology.