Among the chemicals produced by the ocean-dwelling microbes, which have been found in habitats as diverse as sea grasses, marine sediments and corals, is a potent endocrine disruptor that mimics the human body's most active thyroid hormone.
The toxic compounds are known as polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), a subgroup of brominated flame retardants that are combined into foam, textiles and electronics to raise the temperature at which the products will burn.
Bradley Moore, PhD said it was alarming to find that flame retardant-like chemicals are biologically synthesized by common bacteria in the marine environment.
The researchers have identified a group of ten genes involved in the synthesis of more than 15 bromine-containing polyaromatic compounds, including some PBDEs and this study is the first to isolate and identify bacteria that synthesize these compounds and whose presence may help explain the observed distribution pattern of PBDEs in the marine food chain.
Vinayak Agarwal, PhD said that the next step is to look more broadly in the marine environment for the distribution of this gene signature and to document how these compounds are entering the food chain.
The study is published in the online issue of Nature Chemical Biology.