Manuel Porcar, President of Darwin Bioprospecting Excellence, is one of the winners of the IgNobel 2021 prize in Ecology. He was interviewed on September 17, curiously on the International Day of Microorganisms, by the Ágora section of Aragón Radio. In this interview, he explains the usefulness of microorganisms in the industry and in our day to day life. He also explains how the idea of studying the soil chewing gum microbiome came about. Finally, he explains how he believes that Darwin Bioprospecting Excellence has achieved success in just 5 years since its inception.
You’ve got the full interview below. If you want to listen to the full program, click here (only in Spanish).
Manuel Porcar, researcher at the Institute of Synthetic and Systems Biology of the University of Valencia of the CSIC, is with us tonight. Manuel, besides being microorganisms misunderstood…With this pandemic that is still among us, we have learned that not only do they exist, but that they are also very necessary.
It’s true. They have given us this award, which has given us a certain notoriety, which analyzes the microbial composition of chewing gums from soils. It may seem surprising or even eschatological but I would like to emphasize that there are words that the public has discovered now and that they can’t stop using, and can’t stop surprising myself, such as PCR. “I just got a PCR done, it’s negative.” Before we only heard microbiologists say it, now you hear it in bars and restaurants. By PCR, as far as everyone knows, it’s a technique that serves to identify, among other things, a possible disease quite quickly. It is possible because someone came up with the idea of looking in the Yellowstone hot springs for enzymes that could be stable at very high temperatures, at 72ºC. So, every time someone does a PCR to find out if they have, or not have the coronavirus, we should all be grateful to those researchers that put their hands in a pool of hot water and extracted the microorganisms that had molecules or enzymes that functioned at very high temperatures and thanks to this, this test can now be carried out, which is indirectly saving so many lives. Therefore, it is like a claim that bioprospecting is a fundamental tool in biomedicine, to isolate microorganisms and biomolecules that are of great importance due to their industrial application.
They’re in charge of doing absolutely everything, even within us.
Yes, we all travel with our “package” of microorganisms between half a kg and a couple of kilos heavy. Most are in the place where everyone imagines, but we also have many microorganisms on our skin. It’s known that the microorganisms of the digestive tract, beyond facilitating good digestion, they also have influences on all the metabolic activities of the entire physiology of a person, including the gut-brain axis. What the bacteria do in our digestive tract clearly has a neurological effect and there are even bacteria that produce neurotransmitters and whose absence is correlated with depression. The following quote could be said, in a very coloquial way: “Tell me what microbiome you have and I will tell you what personality you have.” There is a surprising association between our bacteria and who we are, actually.
It’s incredible. How interesting, Manuel. And regarding the chewing gum: Why did you go look for bacteria in the gum stuck on the floor?
Well, both in the research we do at I2SysBio and in the company we started, Darwin Bioprospecting Excellence, what we do is bioprospecting. Bioprospecting consists of searching in natural or artificial environments for microorganisms that may later have an industrial application. We have previous work with microorganisms from solar panels, from capsule coffee makers, and we have very powerful research lines on bacteria that degrade plastic. The industrial application is very obvious, right? The decontamination of microplastics that are everywhere in the biosphere and that we eat. Scientists say we eat, without realizing it, the plastic equivalent of a credit card per week. So, the application of bacteria that can degrade plastic I think is self-explanatory, It’s evident. The idea was simply to think what would happen if we studied these chewing gums that were stuck on the ground, that are everywhere, that nobody has done yet. Indeed, we found that no one had done it yet. We did a search for gum in the countries we visited on vacation to analyze its microbial content, we saw that it was very diverse. Then we did another job, which is perhaps quite shocking and perhaps has contributed to our IgNobel award, and which consists of the first author of the work, Leila Satari, chewing gum and spitting it on the ground and observing it during 1 week. She was taking samples of those gums that we knew how long they had been on the ground chewed and spit it on the ground herself. This has allowed us to see how the gum microbiome evolves and to see how, starting from something that contains the typical bacteria of a person, can evolve and change.