Scientists have developed a way to grow iron-oxidizing bacteria using electricity instead of iron, an advance that will allow them to better study the organisms and could one day be used to turn electricity into fuel. The study will be published on January 29 in mBio, the online open-access journal of the American Society for Microbiology.
The method, called electrochemical cultivation, supplies these bacteria with a steady supply of electrons that the bacteria use to respire, or "breathe". It opens the possibility that one day electricity generated from renewable sources like wind or solar could be funneled to iron oxidizing bacteria that combine it with carbon dioxide to create biofuels, capturing the energy as a useful, storable substance.
"It's a new way to cultivate a microorganism that's been very difficult to study. But the fact that these organisms can synthesize everything they need using only electricity makes us very interested in their abilities," says Daniel Bond of the BioTechnology Institute at the University of Minnesota Twin Cities, who co-authored the paper with Zarath Summers and Jeffrey Gralnick.
To "breathe", iron oxidizers take electrons off of dissolved iron, called Fe(II) a process that produces copious amounts of rust, called Fe(III). Iron-oxidizing bacteria are found around the world, almost anywhere an aerobic environment (with plenty of oxygen) meets an anaerobic environment (which lacks oxygen). They play a big role in the global cycling of iron and contribute to the corrosion of steel pipelines, bridges, piers, and ships, but their lifestyle at the interface of two very different habitats and the accumulation of cell-trapping Fe(III) makes iron oxidizers difficult to grow and study in the lab.
Scientists think these bacteria must carry out the iron oxidation step on their surfaces. If that's true, Bond reasoned, the outsides of the organisms should be covered with proteins that inter
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American Society for Microbiology