Nav: Home

Capturing bacteria that eat and breathe electricity

March 05, 2019

Last August, Abdelrhman Mohamed found himself hiking deep into the wilderness of Yellowstone National Park.

Unlike thousands of tourists who trek to admire the park's iconic geysers and hot springs every year, the WSU graduate student was traveling with a team of scientists to hunt for life within them.

After a strenuous seven mile walk through scenic, isolated paths in the Heart Lake Geyser Basin area, the team found four pristine pools of hot water. They carefully left a few electrodes inserted into the edge of the water, hoping to coax little-known creatures out of hiding -- bacteria that can eat and breathe electricity.

After 32 days, the team returned to the hot springs to collect the submerged electrodes. Working under the supervision of Haluk Beyenal, Paul Hohenschuh Distinguished Professor in the Gene and Linda Voiland School of Chemical Engineering and Bioengineering, Mohamed and postdoctoral researcher Phuc Ha analyzed the electrodes.

Voila! They had succeeded in capturing their prey - heat-loving bacteria that "breathe" electricity through the solid carbon surface of the electrodes.

The WSU team, in collaboration with colleagues from Montana State University, published their research detailing the multiple bacterial communities they found in the Journal of Power Sources.

"This was the first time such bacteria were collected in situ in an extreme environment like an alkaline hot spring," said Mohamed, adding that temperatures in the springs ranged from about 110 to nearly 200 degrees Fahrenheit.

These tiny creatures are not merely of academic interest.

They may hold a key to solving some of the biggest challenges facing humanity - environmental pollution and sustainable energy. Such bacteria can "eat" pollution by converting toxic pollutants into less harmful substances and generating electricity in the process.

"As these bacteria pass their electrons into metals or other solid surfaces, they can produce a stream of electricity that can be used for low-power applications," said Beyenal.

Most living organisms - including humans - use electrons, which are tiny negatively-charged particles, in a complex chain of chemical reactions to power their bodies. Every organism needs a source of electrons and a place to dump the electrons to live. While we humans get our electrons from sugars in the food we eat and pass them into the oxygen we breathe through our lungs, several types of bacteria dump their electrons to outside metals or minerals, using protruding hair-like wires.

To collect bacteria in such an extreme environment over 32 days, Mohamed invented a cheap portable potentiostat, an electronic device that could control the electrodes submerged in the hot springs for long periods of time.

"The natural conditions found in geothermal features such as hot springs are difficult to replicate in laboratory settings," said Beyenal. "So, we developed a new strategy to enrich heat-loving bacteria in their natural environment."
-end-
The work was funded by grants from the National Science Foundation and the W.M. Keck Foundation.

Washington State University

Related Bacteria Articles:

Bacteria might help other bacteria to tolerate antibiotics better
A new paper by the Dynamical Systems Biology lab at UPF shows that the response by bacteria to antibiotics may depend on other species of bacteria they live with, in such a way that some bacteria may make others more tolerant to antibiotics.
Two-faced bacteria
The gut microbiome, which is a collection of numerous beneficial bacteria species, is key to our overall well-being and good health.
Microcensus in bacteria
Bacillus subtilis can determine proportions of different groups within a mixed population.
Right beneath the skin we all have the same bacteria
In the dermis skin layer, the same bacteria are found across age and gender.
Bacteria must be 'stressed out' to divide
Bacterial cell division is controlled by both enzymatic activity and mechanical forces, which work together to control its timing and location, a new study from EPFL finds.
How bees live with bacteria
More than 90 percent of all bee species are not organized in colonies, but fight their way through life alone.
The bacteria building your baby
Australian researchers have laid to rest a longstanding controversy: is the womb sterile?
Hopping bacteria
Scientists have long known that key models of bacterial movement in real-world conditions are flawed.
Bacteria uses viral weapon against other bacteria
Bacterial cells use both a virus -- traditionally thought to be an enemy -- and a prehistoric viral protein to kill other bacteria that competes with it for food according to an international team of researchers who believe this has potential implications for future infectious disease treatment.
Drug diversity in bacteria
Bacteria produce a cocktail of various bioactive natural products in order to survive in hostile environments with competing (micro)organisms.
More Bacteria News and Bacteria Current Events

Trending Science News

Current Coronavirus (COVID-19) News

Top Science Podcasts

We have hand picked the top science podcasts of 2020.
Now Playing: TED Radio Hour

Climate Mindset
In the past few months, human beings have come together to fight a global threat. This hour, TED speakers explore how our response can be the catalyst to fight another global crisis: climate change. Guests include political strategist Tom Rivett-Carnac, diplomat Christiana Figueres, climate justice activist Xiye Bastida, and writer, illustrator, and artist Oliver Jeffers.
Now Playing: Science for the People

#562 Superbug to Bedside
By now we're all good and scared about antibiotic resistance, one of the many things coming to get us all. But there's good news, sort of. News antibiotics are coming out! How do they get tested? What does that kind of a trial look like and how does it happen? Host Bethany Brookeshire talks with Matt McCarthy, author of "Superbugs: The Race to Stop an Epidemic", about the ins and outs of testing a new antibiotic in the hospital.
Now Playing: Radiolab

Speedy Beet
There are few musical moments more well-worn than the first four notes of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. But in this short, we find out that Beethoven might have made a last-ditch effort to keep his music from ever feeling familiar, to keep pushing his listeners to a kind of psychological limit. Big thanks to our Brooklyn Philharmonic musicians: Deborah Buck and Suzy Perelman on violin, Arash Amini on cello, and Ah Ling Neu on viola. And check out The First Four Notes, Matthew Guerrieri's book on Beethoven's Fifth. Support Radiolab today at Radiolab.org/donate.