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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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What about mutation?
By daftrok on 3/4/2008 3:43:37 PM , Rating: -1
I am not condoning the fact that bacteria is beneficial in many ways, but what happens when a prolonged usage of electricity through the organism leads to a mutation and causes a new disease? I think that before making this an alternative form of energy they need to do some extensive research on the effects of electrical flow on bacteria.

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 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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