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Biological roles of rare earth elements

From technology applications in solar cells, mobile phones, batteries and lasers to counterfeiting tags in our Euro currency, Rare Earth Elements (REEs) have steadily made their way into our everyday lives. The term ‘rare’ is clearly misleading as many REEs are abundant, with Ce found in similar concentrations as Cu and Zn in the earth’s crust. What is currently lacking is an understanding and appreciation of the role of REEs in general, but especially the lanthanides (Ln), in biology. Remarkably, in 2014 it was discovered by H. Op den Camp, A. Pol and coworkers (A. Pol et al, Environ. Microbiol., 2014, 16, 255-264) that a methanotrophic microbe (SolV), isolated from volcanic mudpots near Naples, Italy, depends on lanthanides for growth. The respective enzyme responsible for this dependence is a methanol dehydrogenase (MDH).

Our groups aims to gain a deeper understanding for lanthanides in those systems. We are using model complexes and various spectroscopic techniques to elucidate the mechanism of action of this REE-dependent MDH.