MIT Scientists Develop Technique To Identify Electricity Generating Bacteria

Posted: Jan 18 2019, 2:35am CST | by , in Latest Science News


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MIT Scientists Develop Technique to Identify Electricity Generating Bacteria
Credit: Qianru Wang

The new microfluidic technique quickly sorts bacteria that have electricity-producing properties.

Bacteria that produce electricity have been found in exotic environments like deep within mines, at the bottoms of lakes and even in human gut. These bacteria generate an electric current from their cells and excrete and pump out electrons. This process is similar to the way humans breathe oxygen.

Researchers believe that bacteria can be used as a reliable option to make electricity for treating wastewater and to perform several functions on future space mission. However, electrical properties of microbes are very hard to pin down. Their cells are much smaller than those of mammalians. Moreover, they are nearly impossible to grow in laboratory conditions.

To solve the problem, MIT researchers have developed a technique for visualizing the behavior of fluids in bacteria. The new microfluidic technique can quickly process small samples of bacteria and assess their electrochemical activity in a safer, more efficient manner than ever before.

"There is recent work suggesting there might be a much broader range of bacteria that have (electricity-producing) properties," said Cullen Buie, a professor of mechanical engineering at MIT. "Thus, a tool that allows you to probe those organisms could be much more important than we thought. It's not just a small handful of microbes that can do this."

Bacteria use a process known as extracellular electron transfer or EET which involves electron movement in and out of cells. Most of the existing techniques investigate bacteria's electrochemical activity by growing large batches of cells and measuring the activity of EET proteins. The new technique assesses bacteria's electrical function in a faster and less destructive manner.

In the latest study, the researchers included various strains of bacteria, each with a different, known electrochemical activity. Their aim was to find a connection between a bacteria's electrical ability its behavior in a microfluidic device. Researchers flowed very small samples of each bacterial strain through the hourglass-shaped microfluidic channel and slowly increased the voltage across the channel, one volt per second, from 0 to 80 volts. By using imaging technique known as particle image velocimetry, they found some bacteria were trapped at lower applied voltages and others at higher voltages. Researchers then studied "trapping voltage" for each bacterial cell, measured their cell sizes, and then used a computer simulation to calculate a cell's polarizability

Results showed that bacteria that were more electrochemically active tended to have a higher polarizability and correlation was consistent across all species of bacteria tested in the study.

"We have the necessary evidence to see that there's a strong correlation between polarizability and electrochemical activity," said Wang. "If the same trend of correlation stands for those newer strains, then this technique can have a broader application, in clean energy generation, bioremediation, and biofuels production.”

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<a href="/latest_stories/all/all/47" rel="author">Hira Bashir</a>
The latest discoveries in science are the passion of Hira Bashir (). With years of experience, she is able to spot the most interesting new achievements of scientists around the world and cover them in easy to understand reporting.




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