Finding Electricity Producing Bacteria Just Got Easier

A new method for sorting bacteria with electrical properties might make the organism more useful for power generation and sewage treatment.

Most organisms on the planet require oxygen to survive. However, in low-oxygen environments, some organisms, especially bacteria, have developed novel ways of breathing.

For many bacteria that live deep within mines or at the bottom of lakes, the key to “breathing” has been the development of techniques that pump electrons out of their body. In essence, to stay alive, these bacteria have become microscopic power plants. That property has piqued researchers’ interests.

But, there’s a catch. Detecting which species of bacteria have this property has been notoriously difficult.

That is, until recently. Scientists working at MIT have developed a microfluidic filtering technique that can quickly, accurately and safely detect electricity-producing bacteria.

According to researchers, the new technique sorts bacteria by examining a property called polarizability, which researchers believe is strongly linked to electrical activity in bacteria. This new process has the potential to change the scope of what can be done with electricity-producing bacteria.

“There is recent work suggesting there might be a much broader range of bacteria that have [electricity-producing] properties,” said Cullen Buie, associate 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.”

If a wider range of electricity-producing bacteria can be isolated, researchers believe their options for leveraging this unique biological process could be expanded.

Currently, scientists think that electro-active bacteria could be used to run fuel cells and purify water. In the future, the most potent electricity-producing bacteria could be grown to generate electricity on a greater scale setting them up as a potential source of power generation.