Surprising Bacterial Nanowire Discovery May Lead to Living and Self-Repairing Electrical Circuits

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Bacteria producing nanowires made up of cytochrome OmcS. Credit: Ella Maru Studio

Cooling Speeds Up Electrons in Bacterial Nanowires

The ground beneath our feet and under the ocean floor is an electrically-charged grid created by bacteria “exhaling” excess electrons through tiny nanowires in an oxygen-depleted environment. By identifying the mechanism of electron flow, Yale University researchers have been studying ways to improve this natural electrical conductivity within nanowires 1/100,000th the width of a human hair.

In a new study published today (May 11, 2022) in Science Advances, a team led by graduate student Peter Dahl with Nikhil Malvankar, Assistant Professor of Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry in the Microbial Sciences Institute, and Victor Batista, Professor of Chemistry, found that nanowires move 10 billion electrons per second without any energy loss. This research explains the remarkable capacity of these bacteria to send electrons over long distances.

The researchers also found that cooling the environment around the nanowires of the bacteria Geobacter from room temperature to freezing increases conductivity 300-fold. This is very surprising because cooling typically freezes electrons and slows them down in organic materials. By combining experiments with theory, the researchers found that colder temperatures restructure hydrogen bonds and flatten heme proteins within nanowires, thus enhancing the flow of electricity.

Leveraging this naturally occurring electrical grid might one day lead to the development of living and self-repairing electrical circuits, new sources of electricity, and bioremediation strategies.  

Reference: “300-fold conductivity increase in microbial cytochrome nanowires due to temperature-induced restructuring of hydrogen bonding networks” 11 May 2022, Science Advances.
DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.abm7193

Other authors include Sophia Yi, Yangqi Gu, Catharine Shipps, Jens Neu, Patrick O’Brien, Dennis Vu and Sibel Ebru Yalcin from the Malvankar Lab, and Atanu Acharya, Uriel Morzan, and Subhajyoti Chaudhuri from the Batista Lab.



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