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The Lowly Sewer Bacterium That Likes to Bust Up Cholesterol

Spanish university researchers have isolated a new species of bacteria-which they found in sewer sludge-that is able to break down cholesterol.

The bacterium, Gordonia cholesterolivorans, belongs to a group of bacteria that was first classified in 1997. Scientists have noted that Gordonia are powerful agents in breaking down environmental pollutants that often wind up in sewers, including compounds found in plastics and rubber.

Cholesterol also is often abundant in sewage. Besides its function as a steroid in the human body, cholesterol is used as an emollient and stabilizer in the pharmaceutical and cosmetic industries-a role that makes it show up as industrial waste.

Although the Universidad Complutense de Madrid scientists think that Gordonia cholesterolivorans will be a useful agent in breaking down cholesterol in urban sewage, they do not think that the critter is likely to become the basis anytime soon for treating cholesterol in people.

It turns out that Gordonia are often pathogenic to humans. So what will happen next is that scientists will study Gordonia cholesterolivorans’s metabolism to see how it breaks down cholesterol, then attempt to genetically engineer a bacterium that works faster on sewage. An engineered, more benign bacterium that can be applied to humans is still a ways off.

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