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Microbial hair: It's electric
Date:10/11/2010

Some bacteria grow electrical hair that lets them link up in big biological circuits, according to a University of Southern California biophysicist and his collaborators.

The finding suggests that microbial colonies may survive, communicate and share energy in part through electrically conducting hairs known as bacterial nanowires.

"This is the first measurement of electron transport along biological nanowires produced by bacteria," said Mohamed El-Naggar, assistant professor of physics and astronomy at the USC College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.

El-Naggar was the lead author of a study appearing online next week in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Knowing how microbial communities thrive is the first step in finding ways to destroy harmful colonies, such as biofilms on teeth. Biofilms have proven highly resistant to antibiotics.

The same knowledge could help to promote useful colonies, such as those in bacterial fuel cells under development at USC and other institutions.

"The flow of electrons in various directions is intimately tied to the metabolic status of different parts of the biofilm," El-Naggar said. "Bacterial nanowires can provide the necessary links for the survival of a microbial circuit."

A bacterial nanowire looks like a long hair sticking out of a microbe's body. Like human hair, it consists mostly of protein.

To test the conductivity of nanowires, the researchers grew cultures of Shewanella oneidensis MR-1, a microbe previously discovered by co-author Kenneth Nealson, Wrigley Professor of Geobiology at USC College.

Shewanella tend to make nanowires in times of scarcity. By manipulating growing conditions, the researchers produced bacteria with plentiful nanowires.

The bacteria then were deposited on a surface dotted with microscopic electrodes. When a nanowire fell across two electrodes, it closed the circuit, enabling a flow
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Contact: Carl Marziali
marziali@usc.edu
213-740-4751
University of Southern California
Source:Eurekalert

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