Berkeley Lab's Study Electrically Links Living and Inorganic Material

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Scientists from the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory have created an electric link between living and non-living material in a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Oct. 16.

Researchers with the Molecular Foundry at the lab have broadened the scope of electronic communication between living and non-living systems by engineering a molecularly defined pathway for living cells to transmit electrical signals to inorganic materials, opening the doors for new energy technologies that merge the abilities of both living cells and modern devices.

"Instead of having a dog walking around the airport and barking when it smells TNT or drugs, we could actually engineer microbes to detect those signals and instead of barking, just sending an electrical signal to a handheld device," said Caroline Ajo-Franklin, co-author of the study. "So it means that we can really start thinking about melding and molding the abilities of living cells and the abilities of modern technological devices."

Ajo-Franklin and her team inserted copies of strains of DNA from a metal-reducing bacteria - which is unique in that it can move electrons to the exterior of the membrane without harming the cell -- into a sample of E. coli, a bacteria commonly used in biotechnological research.

After they leave the cell, the electrons are transported across a protein channel into an iron acceptor, which will extract the energy from the electrons and allow microbes to exist in environments previously considered impossible for survival.

Ajo-Franklin said her team focused on this area of research because existing methods for electrically connecting cells and materials do not provide a "well-defined route" for electronic communication that preserves the cell's viability.

"This is not the first time that scientists have measured electron flow from a living microbe, but it is the first time that we have been able to re-build this capability in a different microbe," Heather Jensen, a graduate student and co-author of the study, said in an e-mail.

Brett Helms, another co-author of the study, said the research could create new systems of energy technologies that, for example, use photosynthetic bacteria for solar batteries or place bacteria on solar panels to harness energy more efficiently.

"I don't see any reason why we can't seriously talk about doing things like transferring sunlight into electricity and basically creating solar panels that are living and that repair and replicate themselves," Ajo-Franklin said.

Although the metal-reducing bacteria has its own pathway, the engineered E. coli - the living bacteria tested in this study -- has proven to be faster and more efficient, according to Jensen.

This research may also be a helpful and more efficient method for making protein-based pharmaceuticals like insulin, which require huge cell cultures and large amounts of energy to pump oxygen. According to Ajo-Franklin, this would cut the cost of making protein--based drugs.

Her research team is also exploring the ways in which energy from the engineered bacteria can be harvested so that their electrical signals can be processed by computers.

"(This) work points towards incorporating living organisms into electronic devices, which can vary from microbial fuel cells to sensors, batteries and photovoltaics," Helms said in an e-mail.


Contact Yousur Alhlou at [email protected]

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