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The bacterium Mycoplasma pneumoniae, a human pathogen, has a genome of reduced size and is one of the simplest organisms that can reproduce outside of host cells. As such, it represents an excellent model organism in which to attempt a systems-level understanding of its biological organization. Now three papers provide a comprehensive and quantitative analysis of the proteome, the metabolic network, and the transcriptome of M. pneumoniae (see the Perspective by Ochman and Raghavan). Anticipating what might be possible in the future for more complex organisms, Kühner et al. (p. 1235) combine analysis of protein interactions by mass spectrometry with extensive structural information on M. pneumoniae proteins to reveal how proteins work together as molecular machines and map their organization within the cell by electron tomography. The manageable genome size of M. pneumoniae allowed Yus et al. (p. 1263) to map the metabolic network of the organism manually and validate it experimentally. Analysis of the network aided development of a minimal medium in which the bacterium could be cultured. Finally, G‡ell et al. (p. 1268) applied state-of-the-art sequencing techniques to reveal that this “simple” organism makes extensive use of noncoding RNAs and has exon- and intron-like structure within transcriptional operons that allows complex gene regulation resembling that of eukaryotes.
To understand basic principles of bacterial metabolism organization and regulation, but also the impact of genome size, we systematically studied one of the smallest bacteria, Mycoplasma pneumoniae. A manually curated metabolic network of 189 reactions catalyzed by 129 enzymes allowed the design of a defined, minimal medium with 19 essential nutrients. More than 1300 growth curves were recorded in the presence of various nutrient concentrations. Measurements of biomass indicators, metabolites, and 13C-glucose experiments provided information on directionality, fluxes, and energetics; integration with transcription profiling enabled the global analysis of metabolic regulation. Compared with more complex bacteria, the M. pneumoniae metabolic network has a more linear topology and contains a higher fraction of multifunctional enzymes; general features such as metabolite concentrations, cellular energetics, adaptability, and global gene expression responses are similar, however.