Bacteria use electric wires to shock uranium out of groundwater

By Ed Yong | September 5, 2011 3:00 pm

Even today, the legacy of the Cold War leaches into the waters of Colorado. Uranium, freed from the earth and destined for nuclear weapons, now contaminates the groundwater beneath several Colorado mines. But at some of these mines, a most unusual clean-up crew is at work. Lashing about with long electric cables connected to their own bodies, they remove dissolved uranium from the water. Each one of these janitors is just a thousandth of a millimetre across. They’re called Geobacter. They’re bacteria.

The handful of Geobacter species are recent discoveries. The first one, G.metallireducens, was discovered in the Potomac River in 1987. Another, G.sulfurreducens, was later found in oil-soaked Oklahoman soils. The group has the remarkable and useful ability to break down a range of contaminating chemicals, such as petroleum compounds. While humans use oxygen to rend carbon compounds into carbon dioxide and water, Geobacter can use iron oxides and other metals for the same purpose. Roughly speaking, it breathes metal and rock.

This ability has made Geobacter into an obvious candidate for cleaning up environmental mess – a process known as bioremediation. For the last decade, for example, scientists have been using G.sulfurreducens to clean up uranium-contaminated groundwater in Colorado mines. The bacteria add electrons to uranium ions, converting them from a form that easily dissolves in water into one that doesn’t. The uranium drops out of the water, and it can be more easily removed.

This has been a case of technology running ahead of the science. We knew a fair bit about what the bacteria were doing, but less about how they do it. But that gap is being filled. Earlier this year, Derek Lolvey from the University of Massachussetts found that G.sulfurreducens channels electrons along its own home-grown electric wires. It literally plugs itself into its environment.

These wires, known as pili, are just a few nanometres wide, but can be much longer than the bacteria themselves. Although they are made of protein, they can conduct electricity as well as materials used in the electronics industry. Different species can use their pili to wire up to one another, and scientists can even harvest electricity from the bacteria (albeit inefficiently) by growing them on electrodes.

Now, Dena Cologgi from Michigan State University has found that the pili are essential for Geobacter’s uranium-removing abilities. Geobacter uses the pili to offload electrons onto uranium particles, covering a far greater area than it could otherwise reach. Cologgi found that pili-wielding Geobacter removed substantially more uranium from contaminated water than strains that lacked the gene responsible for creating these wires.

Geobacter also uses its pili to protect itself, by breaking down uranium at a distance. Dense deposits of uranium built up around the wires and far away from the bacterium itself. However, the pili-less mutants accumulated uranium in their own membranes and were the worse for it. Their vital functions slowed, they grew less quickly, and they took more time to recover from uranium exposure. Geobacter clearly benefits from keeping its reactions at wire’s length.

Cologgi hopes that her study, by showing how Geobacter acts upon uranium, will help scientists to design better ways of using the bacterium to clean up our messes. It might also apply to other species. Another uranium-removing bacterium called Sheanella oneidensis also has conductive wires. There could be an entire network of conducting bacteria waiting to be tapped into.

Reference: Cologgi, Pastirk, Speers, Kelly & Reguera. 2011. Extracellular reduction of uranium via Geobacter conductive pili as a protective cellular mechanism. PNAS http://dx.doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1108616108

Image by Anna Klimes & Ernie Carbone

More on bioremediation: Fungi transform depleted uranium into chemically stable minerals

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Bacteria, Biotechnology, Select

Comments (14)

  1. Quinn O'Neill

    Super cool! I can’t seem to find the article at PNAS though.

  2. Is the person on the MSU team getting the right credit? This article states it’s Dr. Gemma Reguera’s team. http://bit.ly/oLQ5t0

  3. Are you sure about the ‘stretch for centimeters’ part? The only length I could find for Geobacter pili was 20 microns.

  4. Old Geezer

    @Chris Lindsay:

    We’ll have to wait until PNAS clears up the link to the paper, but I’m guessing that Cologgi was the lead author while Requera was the team leader.

  5. The reference at the bottom is a clue ;-) Also the caption to the photo on the page Chris linked to…

  6. John Weiss

    This is astonishing.

    Bacteria communicating between (among?) species? I knew that bacteria were rather promiscuous about sharing genes, which is remarkable, but this?!

    Geeze. What is this wonderful place? Maybe it’s heaven.

  7. DennyMo

    So what do you think about the possibility of Hortas in the Geobacter’s evolutionary future?

  8. @Rosie – Actually, checking my source, it says that the pili networks can channel electrons over centimetre distances rather than that the pili themselves are cm-long. Going to change that.

  9. Jeff Gralnick

    It’s an interesting correlation between pili and U reduction. However, lacking pili may also change other properties outside the cell. We know from work in Shewanella (Ed you forgot the ‘w’!) that cytochromes (proteins that contain heme cofactors) are involved. It’s an exciting observation though – hope to see more soon!

  10. Paul

    So, any chance these bacteria can attach their “wires” to an electrode and get their energy from an external source? I’m imagining a bioelectrochemical cell that takes simple chemicals and electricity in and spits out valuable biomolecules. How about an implantable device that (with external power) synthesizes nutrients?

  11. Whoops, sorry Ed. My mistake.

  12. Paul, yes, Dr. Derek Lovely has developed a system like that: http://www.physorg.com/news194022765.html

  13. Marc Abian

    @John Weiss

    Bacteria are communicating frequently. The secrete molecules into the environment around them and the concentration of those molecules tells the bacteria how many of them there are. Hence, this is known as quorum sensing (which would be the term you should google to find out more). There’s lots of these molecules, and different bacteria can sense and synthesise different types.

  14. Most of the comments on this article are those of what I call “wize asses”. Trying to prove they know something. To the author. Well done ! !. I have done a lot of work on this and found many species of microorganisms with the ability of Uranium and other elemental degradation.

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