Discovery opens the door to electricity from microbes

Jun 01, 2011
Discovery opens the door to electricity from microbes

(PhysOrg.com) -- Using bacteria to generate energy is a signifiant step closer following a breakthrough discovery by scientists from the School of Biological Sciences at the University of East Anglia.

Published this week by the leading scientific journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), the research demonstrates for the first time the exact molecular structure of the proteins which enable to transfer .

The discovery means scientists can now start developing ways to ‘tether’ bacteria directly to electrodes - creating efficient microbial fuel cells or ‘bio-batteries’. The advance could also hasten the development of microbe-based agents that can clean up oil or uranium pollution, and fuel cells powered by human or animal waste.

“This is an exciting advance in our understanding of how some bacterial species move electrons from the inside to the outside of a cell,” said Dr. Tom Clarke.

“Identifying the precise molecular structure of the key proteins involved in this process is a crucial step towards tapping into microbes as a viable future source of electricity.”

Funded by the Biotechnology and Research Council (BBSRC) and the US Department of Energy, the project is led by Dr. Clarke, Prof David Richardson and Prof Julea Butt of the School of Biological Sciences UEA, in collaboration with colleagues at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in the US.

In earlier research published by PNAS in 2009, the team demonstrated the mechanism by which survive in oxygen-free environments by constructing electrical wires that extend through the cell wall and make contact with a mineral – a process called iron respiration or ‘breathing rocks’. (See http://www.uea.ac.uk/bio/news/rocknews)

In this latest research, the scientists used a technique called x-ray crystallography to reveal the of the proteins attached to the surface of a Shewanella oneidensis cell through which electrons are transferred.

Explore further: Scientists map mouse genome's 'mission control centers'

More information: ‘Structure of a bacterial cell surface deca-heme electron conduit’ by T Clarke, et al. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Provided by University of East Anglia

5 /5 (5 votes)

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PaulRC
5 / 5 (2) Jun 01, 2011
...fuel cells powered by human or animal waste.

ok, that made me smile. from $4 a gallon to 'oops, out of gas, let me eat a burger and poop in the tank'
antialias
not rated yet Jun 01, 2011
The discovery means scientists can now start developing ways to tether bacteria directly to electrodes - creating efficient microbial fuel cells or bio-batteries

Somehow this evokes a picture from "The Matrix" in my mind...
zbarlici
not rated yet Jun 01, 2011
wow... the electric universe....
LuckyBrandon
1 / 5 (2) Jun 01, 2011
@antialias - agreed, only we arent the battery...

but that brings up the fact that these are living entities that could evolve into who knows what sometime before the sun swallows our planet....i dont think using life as an energy source is a very bright idea. there is the semi-moral perspective of it, but more importantly, its life, it can go extinct!
Ramael
4.5 / 5 (2) Jun 06, 2011
LuckyBrandon no offence but i think your sentiments are pointless. Our bodies kill millions of bacteria every hour, our lives are dependant on the lives of other species in every sense. And thousands of species go extinct every year, long before humans ever walked the earth.

But life as a whole goes on, regardless of those that die. If we can eat lettuce, a complicated multicellular organism, we can use microbes to generate power, or alter them to grow our hormones or drugs. There's nothing wrong with it. In fact, as the product of millions of years of evolution, microbes are already better at performing some molecular tasks than we may likely ever be.

In reality evolution is a product of physics, and and there is no line between us and a dead thing, other than subjectivity. But a microbe is pretty transparent, and we pretty much know they don't have that.
antialias
4.5 / 5 (2) Jun 06, 2011
but more importantly, its life, it can go extinct!

These will be engineered microbes. If they can be used to harvest energy then they will be particularly unsuited to survive on their own (energy efficiency is a prime selection factor amongst microbes - any microbe which wastes even a tiny amount of energy is quickly superceded by a more efficient strain)

So we shouldn't be overly concerned by using these microbes for energy: They'd go extinct outside of a controlled environment in no time.
LuckyBrandon
1 / 5 (1) Jun 24, 2011
Valid arguments guys. I concede my concerns and bow to your wisdom :)

Oh and no offense taken Ramael. Facts overrule concerns :)

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