Researchers at EPFL have enhanced the ability of E. coli bacteria to generate electricity
“We engineered E. coli bacteria, the most widely studied microbe, to generate electricity,” says Professor Ardemis Boghossian at EPFL. “Though there are exotic microbes that naturally produce electricity, they can only do so in the presence of specific chemicals. E. coli can grow on a wide range of sources, which allowed us to produce electricity in a wide range of environments, including from wastewater.”
In a paper published in the journal Joule, Boghossian’s team report a groundbreaking achievement in bioelectronics, advancing the capabilities of common E. coli bacteria to generate electricity. The work outlines a novel approach that could revolutionize both waste management and energy production.
E. coli bacteria, a staple of biological research, have been harnessed to create electricity through a process known as extracellular electron transfer (EET). The EPFL researchers engineered E. coli bacteria to exhibit enhanced EET, making them highly efficient “electric microbes.” Unlike previous methods that required specific chemicals for electricity generation, the bioengineered E. coli can produce electricity while metabolizing a variety of organic substrates.
One of the study’s key innovations is the creation of a complete EET pathway within E. coli, a feat not achieved before. By integrating components from Shewanella oneidensis MR-1, a bacterium famous for generating electricity, the researchers successfully constructed an optimized pathway that spans the inner and outer membranes of the cell. This novel pathway surpassed previous partial approaches, and led to a three-fold increase in electrical current generation compared to conventional strategies.
Wastewater as a playground
Importantly, the engineered E. coli exhibited remarkable performance in various environments, including wastewater collected from a brewery. While exotic electric microbes faltered, the modified E. coli thrived, showcasing its potential for large-scale waste treatment and energy production.
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