Microscopic caffeine fiends

Researchers create a bacterium that can’t live or reproduce without a stimulant found in soft drinks, chocolate, coffee and tea

By Sid Perkins, 13:44 PM April 15, 2013

Scientists tweaked the genes of a bacterium so that it requires caffeine to live and reproduce. Now, they can use this microbe to measure concentrations of caffeine in beverages such as soda, coffee and energy drinks. When the microbes are added to a water-weakened version of one of those drinks, the bacteria grow and the liquid turns cloudy — but only if the drink contained caffeine. In caffeine-free Coke (top left), no cloudiness appears. Credit: Barrick Lab/University of Texas at Austin

Maybe you’ve heard coffee or cola drinkers say they’re “addicted” to caffeine. But a passion for this stimulant doesn’t compare to actually needing caffeine to survive and reproduce. Researchers recently transformed a germ into a true caffeine fiend. And when they were through, this bacterium had to consume caffeine — or die.

Its designers say their new microbe could be used to clean up waters tainted by caffeine. It also could help researchers measure the amount of caffeine in liquids.

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