Genetically Modified Bacteria Conduct Electricity, Ushering in New Era of Green Electronics
Soil bacteria modified to conduct 2000 times as much electricity as that in untreated dirt
Researchers at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst have genetically modified common soil bacteria to produce nanowires capable of conducting electricity at a level that surprised even the scientists themselves. After years of skepticism that this was even theoretically possible, the practical demonstration could lead to a new generation of “green” electronics in which nanowires could be produced in plant waste, without the need for toxic chemicals.
The research, which was supported by the Office of Naval Research (ONR), goes back to a series of papers that Derek Lovley, a professor at UM Amherst, published back in 2011. Lovely overcame skeptics who claimed it was impossible for soil bacteria to conduct electricity. Brushing aside computer models indicating that it was impossible to make the bacteria into electrically conductive nanowires, Lovley demonstrated through experiments that it was indeed possible.
“Research like Dr. Lovley’s could lead to the development of new electronic materials to meet the increasing demand for smaller, more powerful computing devices,” said Linda Chrisey, a program officer in ONR’s Warfighter Performance Department, in a press release. “Being able to produce extremely thin wires with sustainable materials has enormous potential application as components of electronic devices such as sensors, transistors and capacitors.”
The bacteria that Lovley has used in his experiments are called Geobacters; they possess nanoscale protein filaments extending outward from their bodies. These protein filaments are the key to the bacteria’s growth, as they allow it to make electrical connections to the iron oxide contained in the soil where it lives. While these connections allow the Geobacter to survive, it was believed that they could never be made to conduct electricity to the extent that it would ever be useful for human interests, namely electronics.