Organism found at SRS amazes scientific world

By Rob Pavey | Staff Writer

Monday, April 30, 2007

One of the world’s tiniest celebrities hails from one of the planet’s toughest neighborhoods.

Its story began a couple of years ago, when scientists fished a strange slime off a probe used to examine decades-old, high-level nuclear waste inside tanks stored at Savannah River Site. “At first, nobody was sure what it was,” said Christopher “Kitt” Bagwell, a senior scientist at the top-secret Savannah River National Laboratory.

Turns out, the greenish-orange slime was alive. The more it was studied, the more it enamored scientists who were fascinated with its ability to survive radiation doses thousands of times greater than what is considered lethal to humans.

“Finding an organism in such a toxic environment is very unexpected,” said Dr. Bagwell, who will present a paper about the bacteria – dubbed kineococcus radiotolerans – to the American Society for Microbiology next month.

In addition to thriving in the face of normally-lethal radiation, the organism also demonstrates remarkable survival characteristics in terms of its DNA. Humans and most organisms can tolerate few breaks in DNA molecules, he said, but kineococcus radiotolerans has the ability to reassemble itself.

“With this organism, we can take an intact DNA molecule, blast it into little pieces, and in five to six hours the organism is restored and growing normally again,” Dr. Bagwell said. Dr. Bagwell and others who have studied the organism hope further research will yield clues that could aid in medical research, cancer studies and other areas. “There’s a lot of excitement about this organism because of its ability to withstand tremendous abuse,” he said. “What we don’t know is how it does these things – and what more it can do. That’s the direction we’re going now.”

Reach Rob Pavey at 868-1222, ext. 119, or

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