Live Wires: Direct Extracellular Electron Exchange for Bioenergy and Bioremediation of Energy-Related Contamination
Microorganisms that can form direct electrical connections with insoluble minerals, electrodes, or other microorganisms can play an important role in some traditional as well as novel bioenergy strategies and can be helpful in the remediation of environmental contamination resulting from the use of more traditional energy sources. The surprising discovery that microorganisms in the genus Geobacter are capable of forming highly conductive networks of filaments that transfer electrons along their length with organic metallic-like conductivity, rather than traditional molecule to molecule electron exchange, provides an explanation for the ability of Geobacter species to grow in subsurface environments with insoluble Fe(III) oxides as the electron acceptor, and effectively remediate groundwater contaminated with hydrocarbon fuels or uranium and similar contaminants associated with the mining and processing of nuclear fuel. A similar organic metallic-like conductivity may be an important mechanism for microorganisms to exchange electrons in syntrophic associations, such as those responsible for the conversion of organic wastes to methane in anaerobic digesters, a proven bioenergy technology. Biofilms with conductivities rivaling those of synthetic polymers help Geobacter species generate the high current densities in microbial fuel cells producing electric current from organic compounds. Electron transfer in the reverse direction, i.e. from electrodes to microbes, is the basis for microbial electrosynthesis, in which microorganisms reduce carbon dioxide to fuels and other useful organic compounds with solar energy in a form of artificial photosynthesis that is more efficient and avoids many of the environmental sustainability concerns associated with biomass-based bioenergy strategies. The ability of Geobacter species to produce highly conductive electronic networks that function in water opens new possibilities in the emerging field of bioelectronics.
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