What’s even lower on the evolutionary totem pole than the mouth-breather at the other end of your telephone? The rock-breathing microbe, deep in the earth, which may actually spell the future of green electricity and cleaned-up superfund sites.
Scientists at the University of East Anglia (UEA) recently discovered the mechanisms by which these microbes manage to respire directly off of rocks, especially minerals made of iron. According to a release, these findings–published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS)–could be applied to help in the development of new microbe-based technologies such as fuel cells, or ‘bio-batteries’, powered by animal or human waste, as well as agents to clean up areas polluted by oil or uranium.
“This is an exciting advance in our understanding of bacterial processes in the Earth’s sub-surfaces,” said Prof David Richardson, of UEA’s School of Biological Sciences, in a statement. “It will also have important biotechnological impacts.” He goes on to note the potential for rock-breathing bacteria to be used for bio-remediation and for use in microbial fuel-cells powered by sewage or cow manure. “We discovered that the bacteria can construct tiny biological wires that extend through the cell walls and allow the organism to directly contact, and conduct electrons to, a mineral. This means that the bacteria can release electrical charge from inside the cell into the mineral, much like the earth wire on a household plug.”
University of East Anglia [via press release]