Scientists Produce Electricity from Gut Bacteria

Monday, September 17, 2018 - 13:20

Scientists from UC Berkeley have discovered that diarrhea-causing bacterium, Listeria monocytogenes, produces electricity using an entirely different technique from known electrogenic bacteria, and that hundreds of other bacterial species use this same process.

According to the UC Berkeley official website, many of these sparking bacteria are part of the human gut microbiome, and many, like the bug that causes the food-borne illness listeriosis, which can also cause miscarriages, are pathogenic.

Electricity-generating, or "electrogenic," bacteria aren't something new — they can be found in places far away from us, like at the bottom of lakes, said senior author Daniel Portnoy, a microbiologist at the University of California, Berkeley.

In the lab, Portnoy and his team first grew a batch of Listeria monocytogenes, a species of bacteria, that we often eat that sometimes causes an infection called listeriosis. This type of food poisoning typically is most dangerous for those with weakened immune systems, pregnant women (it can cause miscarriages), newborns and elderly people, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

By placing the bacteria in an electrochemical chamber and capturing the generated electrons with a wire, or electrode, the team found that these foodborne bacteria created an electrical current.

“The fact that so many bugs that interact with humans, either as pathogens or in probiotics or in our microbiota or involved in fermentation of human products, are electrogenic — that had been missed before,” Portnoy said.

The discovery will be good news for those currently trying to create living batteries from microbes. Such “green” bioenergetic technologies could, for example, generate electricity from bacteria in waste treatment plants.

The research will be posted online Sept. 12 in advance of Oct. 4 print publication in the journal Nature.

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