How Bacteria Breathe Iron


Electrons conduct through bacterial proteins directly to minerals containing iron

Findings published today in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) show that proteins on the surface of bacteria can produce an electric current by simply touching a mineral surface.

The research shows that it is possible for bacteria to lie directly on the surface of a metal or mineral and transfer electrical charge through their cell membranes. This means that it is possible to ‘tether’ bacteria directly to electrodes – bringing scientists a step closer to creating efficient microbial fuel cells or ‘bio-batteries.’

The team collaborated with researchers at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Washington State in the US. The project was funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) and the US Department of Energy.

Shewanella oneidensis (pictured) is part of a family of marine bacteria. The research team created a synthetic version of this bacteria using just the proteins thought to shuttle the electrons from the inside of the microbe to the rock.

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  1. Im no biologist, but surely if we can see a variety of life on Earth that “breathes” iron, doesnt that open up a whole new number for planets that could harbour life? I mean who knows what could develop on another planet under different conditions?

  2. It seems like we keep on finding that life is even more varied and amazing than we imagined. I’m starting to think that, if this is how capable earth organisms are at exploiting every resource, the possibility that life not only exists elsewhere but is common is growing greater.

  3. Iron eating bacteria like big meals!

    It seems there are various different types of bacteria doing this.

    A bacterium isolated from rust samples of the RMS Titanic appears to be accelerating the wreck’s disintegration.

    The bacteria are eating the wreck’s metal and leaving behind “rusticles,” or icicle-like deposits of rust.

    The porous rusticles will eventually dissolve into fine powder.

    A rust stain may be all that will remain of the RMS Titanic in 15 to 20 years, according to new research into the submerged ocean liner wreck.

    Working at a depth of over two miles, a never-before-seen bacterial species is devouring the hull of the so-called “unsinkable ship” on the Atlantic seabed where it sank on April 15, 1912, killing 1,517 people.

    Named Halomonas titanicae, the bacterium was isolated from samples of so-called rusticles present on the wreck.

    These dark orange structures look like icicles but are made up of rust.structures


    Removed from the hull using the articulated arm of the Mir 2 robotic submersible, the rusticles were transferred to plastic collection bags and transported aseptically to the surface to be analyzed.

    Using DNA technology, the researchers discovered that the rusticles were formed by a combination of 27 different strains of bacteria.

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