Some microbes eat electricity

Scientists have discovered that there are certain microbes that find electricity very tasty. What’s more, it turns out that these electron-eating microbes are very common. Scientists are finding them in many different places.

But how to these microbes do it? Microbes – microscopic organisms such as bacteria, protozoa, fungi – don’t have mouths, so they need another way to bring their fuel into their bodies. A new study, published November 5, 2019, in the journal mBio, reveals how one such bacteria pulls in electrons straight from an electrode source.

Washington University biologist Arpita Bose is a co-author of the study. She said in a statement:

The molecular underpinning of this process has been difficult to unravel … This is mostly due to the complex nature of the proteins involved in this process.

According to the researchers, getting the electricity across the outer layer of the bacteria is the key challenge. This barrier is both nonconductive and impermeable to insoluble iron minerals and/or electrodes.

Thick clusters of long cylindrical bacteria growing from a surface.
R. palustris TIE-1 builds a conduit to accept electrons across its outer membrane. Image via Bose laboratory.

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The study scientists showed that the naturally occurring strain of a bacteria called Rhodopseudomonas palustris TIE-1 builds a conduit to accept electrons across its outer membrane. According the the research, the bacteria relies on an iron-containing helper molecule called a deca-heme cytochrome c. By processing this protein, TIE-1 can form an essential bridge to its electron source.

The ability of these microbes to take up electrons from substances such as metal oxides – called extracellular electron uptake – can help microbes to survive under nutrient-scarce conditions.

Dinesh Gupta, a Ph.D. candidate at Washington University, is the study lead author. Gupta said:

This study will aid in designing a bacterial platform where bacteria can feed on electricity and carbon dioxide to produce value-added compounds such as biofuels.

Bottom line: Some bacteria can live on electricity. A new study investigates how they pull electrons through their outer membranes to gain energy.

Source: Photoferrotrophs Produce a PioAB Electron Conduit for Extracellular Electron Uptake

Via Washington University

November 13, 2019

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