Slender bacterial nanowires require certain key amino acids in order to conduct electricity, according to a study to be published in mBio, the online open-access journal of the American Society for Microbiology, on Tuesday, March 12.
In nature, the bacterium Geobacter sulfurreducens uses these nanowires, called pili, to transport electrons to remote iron particles or other microbes, but the benefits of these wires can also be harnessed by humans for use in fuel cells or bioelectronics. The study in mBio reveals that a core of aromatic amino acids are required to turn these hair-like appendages into functioning electron-carrying biological wires.
"It's the aromatic amino acids that make it a wire," says lead author Derek Lovley of the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Lovley and his colleagues removed the pivotal amino acids from the pili and replaced them with smaller, non-aromatic amino acids. Without these key components, Lovley says, the pili are nothing more than protein strings. "We showed it's not good enough to just make the string - you've got to make a wire," says Lovley.
G. sulfurreducens "breathes" by removing electrons from organic materials and funneling them to iron oxides or to other microorganisms, much the way humans pull electrons out of organic molecules in food and dump them on oxygen. The bacteria use their pili to reach out to iron oxides or other microbes, transferring the "waste" electrons along the structure to the destination. Geobacter's pili are only 3-5 nanometers wide, but they can be 20 micrometers long, many times longer than the cell itself.
Trafficking in electrons is how all living things breathe, but it is normally carried out by discrete proteins or other molecules that act like containers for shuttling electrons from one place to another. Lovley says earlier results showed the pili in G. sulfurreducens possess metallic-like conductivity, th
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American Society for Microbiology