Electric charge imaging propagating along microbial nanowires

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The claim by microbiologist Derek Lovley and colleagues at the University of Massachusetts Amherst that the microbe Geobacter produces tiny electrical wires, called microbial nanowires, has been mired in controversy for a decade, but the researchers say a new collaborative study provides stronger evidence than ever to support their claims.

UMass Amherst physicists working with Lovley and colleagues report in the current issue of Nature Nanotechnology that they’ve used a new imaging technique, electrostatic force microscopy (EFM), to resolve the biological debate with evidence from physics, showing that electric charges do indeed propagate along microbial nanowires just as they do in carbon nanotubes, a highly conductive human-made material.

Physicists Nikhil Malvankar and Sibel Ebru Yalcin, with physics professor Mark Tuominen, confirmed the discovery using EFM, a technique that can show how electrons move through materials. “When we injected electrons at one spot in the microbial nanowires, the whole filament lit up as the electrons propagated through the nanowire,” says Malvankar.

Yalcin, now at Pacific Northwest National Lab, adds, “This is the same response that you would see in a carbon nanotube or other highly conductive synthetic nanofilaments. Even the charge densities are comparable. This is the first time that EFM has been applied to biological proteins. It offers many new opportunities in biology.”

Lovley says the ability of electric current to flow through microbial nanowires has important environmental and practical implications. “Microbial species electrically communicate through these wires, sharing energy in important processes such as the conversion of wastes to methane gas. The nanowires permit Geobacter to live on iron and other metals in the soil, significantly changing soil chemistry and playing an important role in environmental cleanup. Microbial nanowires are also key components in the ability of Geobacter to produce electricity, a novel capability that is being adapted to engineer microbial sensors and biological computing devices.”

Source by : Science Daily

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