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Professor Jeffrey Gralnick, of the University of Minnesota's BioTechnology Institute and department of microbiology, helped to lead the effort that discovered Vitamin B-2's role in upping Shewanella's eletrical output.  (Source: University of Minnesota)

Shewanella, shown here in blue, was also found by separate researchers to be capable of producing carbon nanotubes, shown in yellow.  (Source: University of California Riverside)
It turns out mom was right, when she told you to take your vitamins.

Bacteria have been a hot topic in research these days.  It turns out that the little guys, oft vilified for their pathogenic brethren, can provide exciting solutions to many alternative energy and material purification problems.  Researchers have used bacteria for everything from purifying water, to data storage, to microbial biofuel and hydrogen production.

Now researchers have made an exciting new microbiological breakthrough involving a very special type of bacteria.  It has been known for some time that the bacteria, Shewanella, found commonly in water and soil, produces electricity when it digests organic matter.  This led to researchers taking special interest in its potential as a natural generator.  However, a major roadblock to such alternative energy plans was the fact that it was unknown until now is exactly how the bacteria accomplished its electrical generation, or whether the process could be governed.

Researchers at the University of Minnesota have now discovered that the vitamin riboflavin (known commonly as vitamin B-2), provides the bacteria with much of its generating capabilities.  The research was led by Daniel Bond and Jeffrey Gralnick, of the University of Minnesota's BioTechnology Institute and Department of Microbiology.

Professor Bond explained the importance of their discovery, stating, "This is very exciting because it solves a fundamental biological puzzle.  Scientists have known for years that Shewanella produce electricity. Now we know how they do it."

Their research, which will be published in the March 3 issue of the “Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences” opens the door to an exciting new chapter in alternative energy.  By boosting the Shewanella bacteria's riboflavin intake with vitamins, the bacteria's electrical output dramatically increases.  These bacteria can transform organic waste byproducts such as lactic acid into electricity, offering both a waste disposal and an alternative energy solution.

The research team discovered riboflavin's effects when bacteria growing on their electrodes began to increase in electrical output.  The team discovered that the increase was do to the accumulation of riboflavin on the electrodes, a substance the bacteria naturally produce.  As the riboflavin built up, the bacteria's electrical output increased to a maximum of 370 percent of the original levels.

Potential uses include waste water microbial fuel cells and, according to researchers, a natural fuel source for ocean floor probes.  Professor Bond remarks, "Bacteria could help pay the bills for a wastewater treatment plant."

The researchers do warn that in order for the technology to be cost-effective for home and business use or for transportation, significant biological and fuel cell design obstacles would have to be overcome.  For now, the technology provides a great deal of niche potential for the waste water industry, they say.

For those curious of why Shewanella outputs electrical current, here's why.  The bacteria needs to digest certain soil metals such as iron to survive and thrive.  In order to properly absorb them it directs electrons into the metals to change their properties, making them more digestible.   Says Profesor Gralnick, "Bacteria have been changing the chemistry of the environment for billions of years.  Their ability to make iron soluble is key to metal cycling in the environment and essential to most life on earth."

Such bacteria could also be applied to ship surfaces and used in a reverse process to prevent corrosion by outputting iron.  The U.S. Navy is interested enough in this application to provide the team with a grant to explore the technology further. 

The research was primarily funded by the Initiative for Renewable Energy and the Environment, the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health and Cargill.  The University of Minnesota's College of Biological Sciences and the Institute of Technology were also involved with the project. 

The very useful Shewanella bacterium has also been found to produce carbon nanotubes under the proper conditions.

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hold on a second
By jlips6 on 3/4/2008 5:38:31 PM , Rating: 4
I'm not prepared to make any decisions on how this could be used until they actually give us some facts. Here are some facts I could use.
#1: HOW MUCH ELECTRICITY DO THESE PRODUCE? They say these can be used as alternative energy, how is that possible unless they produce enough electricity from our garbage to power the proportional amount of homes? I doubt that they could really produce that much electricity even considering the amount of garbage the average household throws out. It's kind of fishy how they don't tell us anything, and that kind of attitude makes me think: optimism without reality.
#2: how much waste do these things get rid of? or is it kind of a joke talking about how they can get rid of trash? even if they can't produce much energy, I'm fine with using these if they just speed up the decomposition process.
#3: do these bacteria need certain kinds of trash? They're talking about how these things need vitamin b2 (riboflavin). Can we really just throw our garbage in a pit and expect it to make power? Or would we have to process all our trash and spray it with chemicals before we chuck it in a landfill?
#4: would we need special facilities or devices to extract the electricity from the bacteria? That would be a huge problem with large landfills, and inconvenient next to the current method of simply gathering the natural gasses made from decomposition. (mostly methane)
#5: what is the cost of this compared to other alternative energy options? i don't think this needs explaining.

even if they don't use this with garbage as they are suggesting, then they need to look at the amount of electricity they produce. I'm extremely skeptical of bio-electricity, and not giving me any facts makes me even more skeptical.

RE: hold on a second
By Digimonkey on 3/4/2008 7:10:02 PM , Rating: 3
I doubt they produce very much energy at all, and they probably need vast amounts of organic material. Fortunately, electricity would just be the byproduct of their main function in a waste water treatment plant. Which is mainly what this article was highlighting.

There are competing energy technologies however who's main target is waste water. So it'll be interesting to see how it plays out.

RE: hold on a second
By jlips6 on 3/4/2008 7:42:53 PM , Rating: 2
water treatment would be a lot more efficient than trash to be sure. I'm still wondering about how they're going to gather this electricity though...

RE: hold on a second
By Jedi2155 on 3/5/2008 12:35:10 AM , Rating: 2
Maybe they just have a giant tub of trash with suckers in it, till it produces a certain amount of eletric potential and have it charging our typical chemical batteries and that will then power the rest of the system?

Just a random idea.

RE: hold on a second
By inighthawki on 3/4/2008 9:57:08 PM , Rating: 2
I'm not so sure the point is whether or not it's enough, but rather that they do those things at all. Any additional energy from what could be considered almost nothing is better than none at all. Even if all the bacteria that you can harvest in a single spot could only charge ur ipod, it's still a benefit. Energy from waste could not be a better way to recycle garbage and get energy.

RE: hold on a second
By dever on 3/5/2008 3:20:17 PM , Rating: 2
Given the author's other post today that implys that nuclear is "not a viable alternative energy solution" (despite hundreds of active reactors that might indicate otherwise) these questions about the author's lack of details is appropriate.

RE: hold on a second
By jlips6 on 3/5/2008 9:48:02 PM , Rating: 2
not so inighthawki. As I stated earlier, (although possibly with not enough emphasis.) The current method of deriving energy from trash is by collecting methane from decomposition. If these make electricity, it's possible that they will kill the other bacteria that create methane, or that they will simply decompose more of the material than the methane producing bacteria. If they are more inefficient, we recieve less energy, and thus lies the problem.

RE: hold on a second
By jtemplin on 3/6/2008 2:42:22 AM , Rating: 2
Here is what it needs to grow on:
Medium contained (per liter): 0.46 g NH4Cl, 0.225 g K2HPO4, 0.225 g KH2PO4, 0.117 g MgSO4 7 H2O, 0.225 (NH4)2 SO4, plus 10 ml of a mineral mix (containing per liter: 1.5 g NTA, 0.1 g MnCl2_4H2O, 0.3 g FeSO4_7H2O, 0.17 g CoCl2_6H2O, 0.1 g ZnCl2, 0.04 g CuSO4_5H2O, 0.005 g AlK(SO4)2_12H2O, 0.005 g

Re: how much electricity
...expressed per unit electrode surface area, rates obtained with Shewanella (0.15 A/m2) remain many orders of magnitude lower than what is obtained in chemical fuel cells (1,000 A/m2), similar to what has been observed for other microbial catalysts (13, 33).

I think you folks who are worried about bacteria mutating and killing people need to stop spewing ignorance and enroll in your local community college's microbiology course. You might learn something! With that said, this organism is an opportunistic pathogen and by my meager research has 2 documented cases of infection. I really doubt there is anything to fear from this organism.

For example: decomposition of all kinds is mediated by bacteria and this happens and has happened for millions of years without any human input. I don't think the primary industrial usage of this bacteria would be in decomposing solid garbage. Maybe in treating waste water. But also consider that these bacteria are versatile (facultative anaerobes) and microbiologists can actually culture them. For example: The bacteria causing leprosy (M. leprae) has never been cultured on laboratory media (in vitro) The fact that a bacteria using an exotic type of metabolism can be grown in a lab is a big plus.

Another reason scientists are interested in these bacteria is because they can use uranium as their terminal electron receptor and reduce it to a form that is insoluble. This represents a form of bioremediation which could be used to protect or clean aquifers from radio-contaminants. This research is also important because it shows that something as simple as adding an electron acceptor for this bacteria can increase output by 370%.

I will attempt to clarify/correct the articles description of what the bacteria is doing to generate electricity.

The bacteria needs to digest certain soil metals such as iron to survive and thrive.
Iron is used by this bacteria as the terminal electron acceptor in their electron transport chain. Basically in respiration you need to get ATP, and you have (simplified model here) glycolysis-->krebs(TCA)-->electron transport chain. The first two don't produce much ATP but they reduce electron acceptors (reduce means taking electrons--counterintuitive yes) such as NAD and FAD which become NADH and FADH2. These middle men electron acceptors pass electrons down the chain to the terminal acceptor. Note: terminal electron receptor is a consumable. For most eukaryotes this acceptor is oxygen. We wouldn't say we are digesting oxygen would we? What the bacteria is "digesting" is the carbon source which supplies the electrons or H+. I felt the description was a bit lacking and needed clarification.
In order to properly absorb them it directs electrons into the metals to change their properties, making them more digestible.
The utility of riboflavin here is two fold. First, riboflavin is directly shuttling electrons in their transport chain. Second, Riboflavin can chelate certain metal ions. Chelating refers to the ability of an organic compound to bind metals ion which become less reactive. This packages the iron in a form that the cell can use. So by adding a needed intermediate in their respiration process that also helps procure more terminal electron acceptor, the electrical output (which is an objective measure of their rate of metabolism) is optimized.

/end book writing

Original Press Release

Shewanella secretes flavins that mediate extracellular electron transfer

Enrico Marsili, Daniel B. Baron, Indraneel D. Shikhare, Dan Coursolle, Jeffrey A. Gralnick, and Daniel R. Bond,

Effects of aqueous complexation on reductive precipitation of uranium by Shewanella putrefaciens

Johnson R Haas and Abraham Northup

RE: hold on a second
By jtemplin on 3/6/2008 11:33:08 PM , Rating: 2
I hope someone read this lol...

RE: hold on a second
By jlips6 on 3/8/2008 5:41:21 PM , Rating: 2
I've studied microbiology and how microorganisms function, but this when right over my head. I understood some stuff, but when it went beyond talking about how you react atp with other things, my eyes glazed over.

Flintstone vitamins
By Omega215D on 3/4/2008 5:24:59 PM , Rating: 4
They're Flintstones bacteria, they're big and strong and growing.

By Chudilo on 3/5/2008 10:15:13 AM , Rating: 2
I remember reading about a bacteria that produced hydrogen with a very light electrical stimulation. What would happen if you put both types of bacteria in one tank in a water treatment plant, would the small amount of electricity that this bacteria produces be enough to stimulate the other bacteria to produce increased amounts of hydrogen?

Diamond Producing Bacteria
By Blood1 on 3/5/2008 10:22:15 AM , Rating: 2
How about mutating these little guys so that they eat stuff and produces diamonds. Didn't they find this bacteria on the earth yet?

What about mutation?
By daftrok on 3/4/08, Rating: -1
RE: What about mutation?
By Xodus Maximus on 3/4/2008 3:52:00 PM , Rating: 5
Or... it looks like the lightning plasmid may be coming to a vending machine near you, just pop some mutant bacteria and you're ready to go.

RE: What about mutation?
By Master Kenobi (blog) on 3/4/2008 3:55:51 PM , Rating: 2
Ah yes, the bioshock reference I was waiting for :P

RE: What about mutation?
By jadeskye on 3/4/2008 4:39:00 PM , Rating: 2
as long as we avoid the eve hypodermics *shudder* i cringed everytime i had to 'reload' my plasmid energy.

RE: What about mutation?
By FaceMaster on 3/4/08, Rating: -1
RE: What about mutation?
By prenox on 3/4/2008 7:08:55 PM , Rating: 2
I guess its a good thing it doesn't last very long then?

RE: What about mutation?
By AzureKevin on 3/4/2008 4:18:57 PM , Rating: 5
With what little bit of biological background I have, I'd say I don't think that should really be a concern. This bacteria naturally produces the electricity itself and is therefore unlikely to undergo a mutation from something it naturally does. Also, a small mutation isn't going to change a completely harmless bacteria into something that will threaten human existence. It is far more likely to simply produce a negligible physical characteristic change. Perhaps you've been watching too many Hollywood-produced movies?

RE: What about mutation?
By daftrok on 3/4/2008 4:47:22 PM , Rating: 2
I guess it all depends on what bacteria they use and how much the vitamins in combination of the electrical output change the anatomy of the bacteria. So though I guess mutation is unlikely, it still should be looked into.

RE: What about mutation?
By geddarkstorm on 3/4/2008 5:00:39 PM , Rating: 3
Fortunately mutation doesn't work that way. Bacteria are also generally far better at maintaining their genomes and repairing damage than we are, especially soil dwelling bacteria. It couldn't suddenly jump to being able to thrive in the extremely hostile environment that's the human body.

The amount of bacteria that can act as human pathogens are like a drop of water in the ocean compared to how many bacteria are actually out there.

RE: What about mutation?
By mattclary on 3/5/2008 2:29:54 PM , Rating: 2
[quote]I guess it all depends on what bacteria they use[/quote]

We already know what bacteria they will use, it was mentioned in the article, several times.

You have a lot scarier stuff to worry about than soil dwelling, electricity producing bacteria. The Streptococcus bacteria is everywhere and can seriously f*** you up.

Sleep well. ;)

RE: What about mutation?
By geddarkstorm on 3/4/2008 4:56:54 PM , Rating: 3
The bacteria will only mutate in such a way as to make it more suited for its current environment, which would be the inside of a power cell, not a human body. The environment is what determines what mutations are viable, it can't mutate to suit an environment that is fundamentally different than what it's currently in.

RE: What about mutation?
By mattclary on 3/5/2008 2:31:48 PM , Rating: 2
which would be the inside of a power cell, not a human body

What if the machines use US as power supplies!!???? ;)

RE: What about mutation?
By tmouse on 3/5/2008 3:24:11 PM , Rating: 2
Minor correction: it will mutate randomly, you are right in that the SELECTED mutations will be the result of the environment (its a small detail but one I feel is important to make). I also do not think there is a major risk, we currently use many bacteria in waste treatment and have so far had very little problems. Now the effects of greatly increasing flavinoids into the waste stream.... I do not know, but they should be looked into in regards to its effects on pathogenic organisms that also share this ecological niche.

RE: What about mutation?
By BladeVenom on 3/4/2008 5:32:46 PM , Rating: 3
Bacteria are already mutating on their own everyday, every hour. What if one of them causes a new disease?

We have yet to reach a point in technology where we can create something better than what nature has already done. Sure we can get certain characteristics to be more dominant, but the end result is usually something less likely to survive in the wild.

RE: What about mutation?
By tmouse on 3/5/2008 3:44:08 PM , Rating: 2
I agree with your first statement in general however an argument could be made that the stimulation of the bacteria with riboflavin could have some unforeseen impact on the genesis of other pathological bacteria also present.Would this more than offset any small energy benefit, I simply do not know, but it deserves looking into. I apologize if I am mis-reading your reply but one does have to define "better" for your second point to be valid. If you meant when we attempt to duplicate a biological system with synthetics then I agree, in general. The "producing something less likely to survive in the wild" statement is in principal wrong; since the vast majority of natures attempts fail due to the fact they are purely random while ours are selected. If your referring to a hybrid vigor (numerous pool of mutations in a population) versus a "pure" selected man made product having the ability to survive subtle environmental changes then you are also correct. However man could adjust an organism to survive a dramatically different environment faster and more efficiently that nature ever could (whether it’s wise to do so or not is another question). So if one uses efficiency as the quantifier of "better" than your statement would be less valid.

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