Bacteria unite to form living electric cables that stretch for centimetres

By Ed Yong | October 24, 2012 1:00 pm

The bay at the Danish port of Aarhus is pretty enough, with the usual fare of beach-goers, holiday homes and yachts. But the bay’s most spectacular residents live in the mud beneath its water. Back in 2010, Lars Peter Nielsen found that this mud courses with electric currents that extend over centimetres. Nielsen suspected that the currents were carried by bacteria that behaved like electric grids. Two years on, it seems he was right. But what he found goes well beyond what even he had imagined.

Nielsen’s student Christian Pfeffer has discovered that the electric mud is teeming with a new type of bacteria, which align themselves into living electrical cables. Each cell is just a millionth of a metre long, but together, they can stretch for centimetres. They even look a bit like the cables in our electronics—long and thin, with an internal bundle of conducting fibres surrounded by an insulating sheath.

Nielsen thinks that each cable can be considered as a single individual, composed of many cells. “To me, it’s obvious that they are multicellular bacteria,” he says. “This was a real surprise. It wasn’t among any of our hypotheses. These distances are a couple of centimetres long—we didn’t imagine there would be one organism spanning the whole gap.”

The bacteria are members of a family called Desulfobulbaceae, but their genes are less than 92 percent identical to any of the group’s known members. “They’re so different that they should probably be considered a new genus,” says Nielsen. They’re only found in oxygen-starved mud, but where they exist, there’s a lot of them. On average, Pfeffer found 40 million cells in a cubic centimetre of sediment, enough to make around 117 metres of living cable.

The bacteria join forces to transfer electrons from the deeper mud towards the surface. These electron transfers are the stuff of life. Each of our cells strips electrons from food, hands them from one protein to another, and eventually deposits them onto oxygen, releasing the energy that they need to survive. All of this takes place inside a single cell. The cable bacteria do the same thing, but across a huge chain of cells.

They do this to tap into a rich source of energy—sulphides within the mud. These chemicals can easily donate electrons, but there’s no oxygen around to accept them—no way of completing the chain. All the oxygen is centimetres away, in the top-most sediment. By uniting into cables, the bacteria can span this gap. Those at the bottom tear electrons from sulphides (they “eat”), and send them up to those at the top, which shove them onto oxygen (they “breathe”). Neither could do so without all the cells in the middle.

Until rather recently, scientists thought that microbes could only send electrons over short distances – nanometres (billionths of a metre) at most. Then, in 2005, Gemma Reguera and Derek Lovley found that a species called Geobacter sulfurreducens could send electrons over micrometres (millionths of a metre) using hair-like extensions called pili (or nanowires). Over time, they and others showed that pili networks could send electrons over far larger distances – 100 micrometres, then a millimetre, and then a centimetre. “That’s a ten million fold increase in the measured length of biological electron transport over the course of six years!” says Lovley.

Other scientists have suggested ways in which bacteria could create long-distance currents. Earlier this year, Kazuya Watanabe suggested that they use iron minerals as a go-between. But Nielsen couldn’t see any traces of nanowires when he looked at the bacteria under a powerful microscope. And minerals might help, but they aren’t necessary—if Nielsen replaced the sediment with glass spheres, the bacteria could still carry currents.

Nielsen has plenty of indirect evidence that the microbes are living conductors. If he threaded tungsten wire horizontally through the sediment, he short-circuited the bacterial cables and stopped them from carrying current to the surface. If he placed filters in the way so that the cables couldn’t assemble, he also managed to stop the currents (but not if the filters had pores big enough for the bacteria to pass through).

But Watanabe and Lovley both point out that the team haven’t directly measured the currents flowing across his bacteria. “Yeah, that’s a problem,” says Nielsen. “We’ve tried to use the techniques that worked well for bacterial nanowires, but they didn’t work, probably because [our bacteria] are insulated.”

Under an electron microscope, the team saw that the cable bacteria have a set of 15 or 17 ridges running along their length. In cross-section, they look like gears. The bacteria also seem to share an outer membrane, which extends over the entire filament, like skin draped over sausage links. Nielsen thinks that the ridges are channels for sending electrons from one cell to another, and the shared membrane acts as an insulating sheath. “They compare very well with our electric cables,” he says.

But that’s just a guess. It’s not clear what the ridges are made of, but Nielsen is trying hard to find out how exactly the bacteria are channelling their electrons. That’s just one of many unanswered questions. How do the bacteria organise themselves in a neat vertical line? Do they get parasitised by other species that steal their electrons? What do the cells in the middle of the chain get out of their arrangement? How do the cells divide so that the filaments don’t break?

And how common are they? “They seem to be the optimal organism in any place where you become short of oxygen,” says Nielsen. “Why are they not everywhere? Or are they everywhere?”

Reference: Pfeffer, Larsen, Song, Dong, Besenbacher, Meyer, Kjeldsen, Schreiber, Gorby, El-Naggar, Leung, Schramm, Risgaard-Petersen & Nielsen. 2012. Filamentous bacteria transport electrons over centimetre distances. Nature

Images from Pfeffer et al, and Nature News & Views article

More on electric bacteria:

MORE ABOUT: Bacteria, cables, electric

Comments (5)

  1. Scott

    This isn’t completely new to science, as interspecies hydrogen transfer has been well documented since the 1930’s. What is new, however, is that there are tools available to sense the currents at the cell level, as opposed to inferring them from the thermodynamics and biochemistry of bulk cultures.

    Tools dictate progress. Once tools are in place, discoveries are inevitable.

  2. Can H.

    Hi. Thanks for that impressive news, but I have small question in my mind.

    If I understand right, lower cells in that bio-cable, “eat” sulfides and used the released electrons from sulfides to obtain energy. After then, they transfer that “used” electrons to upper side to bind them with oxygen. So, the electrons are not accumulated at lower parts.

    My question is that How the upper cells obtain energy? They just transfer the electrons that coming from bottom to oxygen to finish respiration cycle. They are just making the “garbage” process of respiration. Is energy is maintained by bottom part?


  3. Siddhant

    Hi, I have another question. Sea water consists of salts and when an electric current is passed through salty water, it is expected that electrolysis will take place. (NaCl breaking down into Na and Cl, H2O breaking down into H and O).
    Has anyone observed such electrolysis (apart from the electron transfer to oxygen)?
    If the electrolysis is taking place, there has to be some mineral deposits (like Na).
    Has anyone observed such deposits?

  4. Tom Parmenter

    Trivial, but back in the 60s there was an attempt to update Muddy Waters’ sound by backing him with a gang of hot modern players. The resulting album, which deservedly flopped,was called ‘Electric Mud’.

  5. Nathan Myers

    This has to be the coolest result of the decade. I’m particularly interested in the life of individuals in the middle of the cable: since they have no access to sulfides or oxygen, mustn’t we consider them to be entirely electrically-operated?

    They must be diverting some of the flow of current to push protons against a gradient. It’s got to be a tricky negotiation: draw off too much power, and the current falls off. Draw off too little, and the neighbors can out-populate you. How do they enforce fair behaviour?

    Are the chains really linear, or do they branch and converge so that no two consecutive electrons need follow the same path all the way from bottom to top? If they do branch, then at the branch point the electrons can choose for themselves the best route, and poorly-cooperating branches fail to attract enough current.


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