Electricity-conducting bacteria could lead to advances in medical tech

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CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (CBS19 NEWS) — Scientists have made a discovery concerning how a strange bacteria that lives in soil and sediment and is capable of conducting electricity.

Researchers determined the bacteria does so through a seamless biological structure that has never been seen before in nature.

According to a release, scientists may be able to co-opt this structure and use it to miniaturize electronics, create powerful but tiny batteries, build pacemakers without wires and develop many other medical advances.

The bacteria, called Geobacter sulfurreducens, was believed to conduct electricity through a common type of hair-like appendages called pili.

However, a research at the University of Virginia School of Medicine determined the bacteria actually transmit electricity through fibers that are made up of an entirely different protein that surround a core of metal-containing molecules.

This structure is being compared to an electric cord that contains metal wires, but it is 100,000 times smaller than the width of a human hair.

The researchers believe the structure could be useful for many things, such as harnessing the power of bioenergy to cleaning up pollution to creating biological sensors.

It could potentially also be used as a bridge between electronics and living cells.

"There are all sorts of implanted medical devices that are connected to tissue, like pacemakers with wires, and this could lead to applications where you have miniature devices that are actually connected by these protein filaments," said Edward H. Egelman, PhD. "We can now imagine the miniaturization of many electronic devices generated by bacteria, which is pretty amazing."

The release says the bacteria plays important roles in the soil, such as facilitating mineral turnover and cleaning up radioactive waste.

The geobacteria survive in environments that lack oxygen, and they use the filament-like structures to rid themselves of excess electrons in what could be considered their equivalent to breathing.

Researchers at UVA, Yale and the University of California, Irvine are all working on studying the bacteria and have just learned about how it transmits electricity.

Egelman, who is in UVA's Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Genetics, says this discover was aided by advances in cryo-electron microscopy, which allowed high resolution.

"We have one of these instruments here at UVA, and therefore, the ability to actually understand at the atomic level the structure of these filaments," he said. "So this is just one of the many mysteries that we've now been able to solve using this technology, like the virus that can survive in boiling acid, and there will be others."

The findings have been published in the scientific journal Cell.