'Rock-breathing' bacteria could generate electricity and clean up oil spills

Dec 14, 2009

A discovery by scientists at the University of East Anglia (UEA) could contribute to the development of systems that use domestic or agricultural waste to generate clean electricity.

Published today by the leading scientific journal, (PNAS), the researchers have demonstrated for the first time the mechanism by which some bacteria survive by 'breathing rocks'.

The findings could be applied to help in the development of new microbe-based technologies such as fuel cells, or 'bio-batteries', powered by animal or human waste, and agents to clean up areas polluted by oil or uranium.

"This is an exciting advance in our understanding of bacterial processes in the Earth's sub-surfaces," said Prof David Richardson, of UEA's School of Biological Sciences, who is leading the project.

"It will also have important biotechnological impacts. There is potential for these rock-breathing bacteria to be used to clean-up environments contaminated with toxic organic pollutants such as oil or radioactive metals such as uranium. Use of these bacteria in microbial fuel-cells powered by sewerage or cow manure is also being explored."

The vast proportion of the world's habitable environments is populated by micro-organisms which, unlike humans, can survive without oxygen. Some of these micro-organisms are bacteria living deep in the Earth's subsurface and surviving by 'breathing rocks' - especially minerals of iron.

Iron respiration is one of the most common respiratory processes in oxygen-free habitats and therefore has wide environmental significance.

Prof Richardson said: "We discovered that the bacteria can construct tiny biological wires that extend through the cell walls and allow the organism to directly contact, and conduct electrons to, a mineral. This means that the bacteria can release electrical charge from inside the cell into the mineral, much like the earth wire on a household plug."

More information: 'Characterization of an electron conduit between and the extracellular environment' by R Hartshorne et al. is published on December 14 in the online early edition of PNAS.

Source: University of East Anglia

Explore further: Genomes of malaria-carrying mosquitoes sequenced

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Researchers discover key for converting waste to electricity

Mar 03, 2008

Researchers at the University of Minnesota studying bacteria capable of generating electricity have discovered that riboflavin (commonly known as vitamin B-2) is responsible for much of the energy produced by these organisms.

New bacteria discovered in tar pits

May 17, 2007

U.S. environmental scientists have discovered the Rancho La Brea tar pits in Los Angeles contain hundreds of new species of unusual bacteria.

Progress Toward a Biological Fuel Cell?

Dec 30, 2008

(PhysOrg.com) -- Biological fuel cells use enzymes or whole microorganisms as biocatalysts for the direct conversion of chemical energy to electrical energy. One type of microbial fuel cell uses anodes (positive electrodes) ...

Pollution-eating bacteria produce electricity

Jun 07, 2005

Microbiologists seeking ways to eliminate pollution from waterways with microbes instead discovered that some pollution-eating bacteria commonly found in freshwater ponds can generate electricity. They present their findings ...

Recommended for you

Genomes of malaria-carrying mosquitoes sequenced

Nov 27, 2014

Nora Besansky, O'Hara Professor of Biological Sciences at the University of Notre Dame and a member of the University's Eck Institute for Global Health, has led an international team of scientists in sequencing ...

How calcium regulates mitochondrial carrier proteins

Nov 26, 2014

Mitochondrial carriers are a family of proteins that play the key role of transporting a chemically diverse range of molecules across the inner mitochondrial membrane. Mitochondrial aspartate/glutamate carriers are part of ...

Team conducts unprecedented analysis of microbial ecosystem

Nov 26, 2014

An international team of scientists from the Translational Genomics Research Institute (TGen) and The Luxembourg Centre for Systems Biomedicine (LCSB) have completed a first-of-its-kind microbial analysis of a biological ...

Students create microbe to weaken superbug

Nov 25, 2014

A team of undergraduate students from the University of Waterloo have designed a synthetic organism that may one day help doctors treat MRSA, an antibiotic-resistant superbug.

User comments : 1

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

dreadnought
not rated yet Dec 15, 2009
This is a very cool discovery. The more we know about bacterial metabolism and physiology, the broader the applications they have in biotechnology.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.