Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:

 

Microbial hair: It's electric

12.10.2010
Specialized bacterial filaments shown to conduct electricity

Some bacteria grow electrical hair that lets them link up in big biological circuits, according to a University of Southern California biophysicist and his collaborators.

The finding suggests that microbial colonies may survive, communicate and share energy in part through electrically conducting hairs known as bacterial nanowires.

"This is the first measurement of electron transport along biological nanowires produced by bacteria," said Mohamed El-Naggar, assistant professor of physics and astronomy at the USC College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.

El-Naggar was the lead author of a study appearing online next week in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Knowing how microbial communities thrive is the first step in finding ways to destroy harmful colonies, such as biofilms on teeth. Biofilms have proven highly resistant to antibiotics.

The same knowledge could help to promote useful colonies, such as those in bacterial fuel cells under development at USC and other institutions.

"The flow of electrons in various directions is intimately tied to the metabolic status of different parts of the biofilm," El-Naggar said. "Bacterial nanowires can provide the necessary links … for the survival of a microbial circuit."

A bacterial nanowire looks like a long hair sticking out of a microbe's body. Like human hair, it consists mostly of protein.

To test the conductivity of nanowires, the researchers grew cultures of Shewanella oneidensis MR-1, a microbe previously discovered by co-author Kenneth Nealson, Wrigley Professor of Geobiology at USC College.

Shewanella tend to make nanowires in times of scarcity. By manipulating growing conditions, the researchers produced bacteria with plentiful nanowires.

The bacteria then were deposited on a surface dotted with microscopic electrodes. When a nanowire fell across two electrodes, it closed the circuit, enabling a flow of measurable current. The conductivity was similar to that of a semiconductor – modest but significant.

When the researchers cut the nanowire, the flow of current stopped.

Previous studies showed that electrons could move across a nanowire, which did not prove that nanowires conducted electrons along their length.

El-Naggar's group is the first to carry out this technically difficult but more telling experiment.

Electricity carried on nanowires may be a lifeline. Bacteria respire by losing electrons to an acceptor – for Shewanella, a metal such as iron. (Breathing is a special case: Humans respire by giving up electrons to oxygen, one of the most powerful electron acceptors.)

Nealson said of Shewanella: "If you don't give it an electron acceptor, it dies. It dies pretty rapidly."

In some cases, a nanowire may be a microbe's only means of dumping electrons.

When an electron acceptor is scarce nearby, nanowires may help bacteria to support each other and extend their collective reach to distant sources.

The researchers noted that Shewanella attach to electron acceptors as well as to each other, forming a colony in which every member should be able to respire through a chain of nanowires.

"This would be basically a community response to transfer electrons," El-Naggar explained. "It would be a form of cooperative breathing."

El-Naggar and his team are among the pioneers in a young discipline. The term "bacterial nanowire" was coined in 2006. Fewer than 10 studies on the subject have been published, according to co-author Yuri Gorby of The J. Craig Venter Institute in San Diego, discoverer of nanowires in Shewanella.

Gorby and others became interested in nanowires when they noticed that reduction of metals appeared to be occurring around the filaments. Since reduction requires the transfer of electrons to a metal, the researchers suspected that the filaments were carrying a current.

Nanowires also have been proposed as conductive pathways in several diverse microbes.

"The current hypothesis is that bacterial nanowires are in fact widespread in the microbial world," El-Naggar said.

Some have suggested that nanowires may help bacteria to communicate as well as to respire.

Bacterial colonies are known to share information through the slow diffusion of signaling molecules. Nealson argued that electron transport over nanowires would be faster and preferable for bacteria.

"You want the telegraph, you don't want smoke signals," he said.

Bacteria's communal strategy for survival may hold lessons for higher life forms.

In an op-ed published in Wired in 2009, Gorby wrote: "Understanding the strategies for efficient energy distribution and communication in the oldest organisms on the planet may serve as useful analogies of sustainability within our own species."

In addition to El-Naggar, Gorby and Nealson, the study's authors were Thomas Yuzvinsky of USC College; Greg Wanger of The J. Craig Venter Institute; and Kar Man Leung, Gordon Southam, Jun Yang and Woon Ming Lau from the University of Western Ontario.

Funding for the research came from the Air Force Office of Scientific Research, the U.S. Department of Energy, the Legler-Benbough Foundation, the J. Craig Venter Institute, the Canadian Natural Science and Engineering Research Council, the Canada Foundation for Innovation and Surface Science Western.

Carl Marziali | EurekAlert!
Further information:
http://www.usc.edu

More articles from Life Sciences:

nachricht How brains surrender to sleep
23.06.2017 | IMP - Forschungsinstitut für Molekulare Pathologie GmbH

nachricht A new technique isolates neuronal activity during memory consolidation
22.06.2017 | Spanish National Research Council (CSIC)

All articles from Life Sciences >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: Can we see monkeys from space? Emerging technologies to map biodiversity

An international team of scientists has proposed a new multi-disciplinary approach in which an array of new technologies will allow us to map biodiversity and the risks that wildlife is facing at the scale of whole landscapes. The findings are published in Nature Ecology and Evolution. This international research is led by the Kunming Institute of Zoology from China, University of East Anglia, University of Leicester and the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research.

Using a combination of satellite and ground data, the team proposes that it is now possible to map biodiversity with an accuracy that has not been previously...

Im Focus: Climate satellite: Tracking methane with robust laser technology

Heatwaves in the Arctic, longer periods of vegetation in Europe, severe floods in West Africa – starting in 2021, scientists want to explore the emissions of the greenhouse gas methane with the German-French satellite MERLIN. This is made possible by a new robust laser system of the Fraunhofer Institute for Laser Technology ILT in Aachen, which achieves unprecedented measurement accuracy.

Methane is primarily the result of the decomposition of organic matter. The gas has a 25 times greater warming potential than carbon dioxide, but is not as...

Im Focus: How protons move through a fuel cell

Hydrogen is regarded as the energy source of the future: It is produced with solar power and can be used to generate heat and electricity in fuel cells. Empa researchers have now succeeded in decoding the movement of hydrogen ions in crystals – a key step towards more efficient energy conversion in the hydrogen industry of tomorrow.

As charge carriers, electrons and ions play the leading role in electrochemical energy storage devices and converters such as batteries and fuel cells. Proton...

Im Focus: A unique data centre for cosmological simulations

Scientists from the Excellence Cluster Universe at the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität Munich have establised "Cosmowebportal", a unique data centre for cosmological simulations located at the Leibniz Supercomputing Centre (LRZ) of the Bavarian Academy of Sciences. The complete results of a series of large hydrodynamical cosmological simulations are available, with data volumes typically exceeding several hundred terabytes. Scientists worldwide can interactively explore these complex simulations via a web interface and directly access the results.

With current telescopes, scientists can observe our Universe’s galaxies and galaxy clusters and their distribution along an invisible cosmic web. From the...

Im Focus: Scientists develop molecular thermometer for contactless measurement using infrared light

Temperature measurements possible even on the smallest scale / Molecular ruby for use in material sciences, biology, and medicine

Chemists at Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz (JGU) in cooperation with researchers of the German Federal Institute for Materials Research and Testing (BAM)...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>

Anzeige

Anzeige

Event News

Plants are networkers

19.06.2017 | Event News

Digital Survival Training for Executives

13.06.2017 | Event News

Global Learning Council Summit 2017

13.06.2017 | Event News

 
Latest News

Quantum thermometer or optical refrigerator?

23.06.2017 | Physics and Astronomy

A 100-year-old physics problem has been solved at EPFL

23.06.2017 | Physics and Astronomy

Equipping form with function

23.06.2017 | Information Technology

VideoLinks
B2B-VideoLinks
More VideoLinks >>>