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Airdate: Jul 28, 2010
Scientist: Prof. Derek Lovley

Geobacter - Electricity From Mud

Geobacter - Electricity From Mud
A recently discovered group of microorganisms have the ability to clean up contaminated groundwater.

ambience lab ambience, buzzer

Iron breathing creatures that live in the mud and create their own electricity? Stay tuned. I'm Jim Metzner and this is the Pulse of the Planet.

"An iron breather is a microorganism that gains its energy much the way that humans do by converting organic compounds to CO2 but instead using oxygen it uses iron minerals that are abundant in most soils and sediments."

Derek Lovley is a professor of microbiology at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. In 1987, while examining some mud from the Potomac River, he discovered a group of microorganisms which depend upon metals like iron for their survival. These so-called iron-breathers have a number of unusual properties, including generating electricity.

"One practical benefit of these iron breathing organisms, is that if we introduce an electrode into their environment, they would use the electrode much in the way that they would naturally use the iron minerals. Basically, they gain energy from the organic materials in their environment and convert this energy onto the electrode which yields the source of electricity."

"This is like an organic battery. You're basically taking organic material that would have no value whatsoever - mud, various types of waste organic matter, and converting it into a useful product, which is electricity."

In Derek Lovely's lab, beakers of iron-breathing microorganisms are generating enough electricity to power a Christmas tree bulb or a buzzer. But there is a potential here for a virtually unlimited supply of electricity on a much larger scale.

"We think we may be able to genetically engineer these iron breathers to make them more efficient and produce more power. We're starting to learn about some of the mechanisms by which they carry out their power production and feel that we can change the design of the iron breathers to make them do this better."

Our thanks to Derek Lovley. Pulse of the Planet is presented by the National Science Foundation. I'm Jim Metzner.