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News

New metal munching microbes, bug batteries and automatic miners

Society For General Microbiology : 13 September, 2005  (New Product)
Electricity generated by bugs living deep in metal rich mud, cleaning up contaminated land, and mining metals automatically using microbes are just some of the most likely possibilities for the future, according to research discussed at the Society for General Microbiology's 157th Meeting at Keele University, UK.
'Many bacteria that grow underground in mud or sediments cannot get their energy from breathing oxygen from the air, so they have evolved to gain energy from other chemical reactions,' says Dr Jonathan Lloyd from the University of Manchester.

'The very first life forms on Earth may have gained their energy for growth from breathing with the help of a range of materials including 'rusty' iron minerals, rather than oxygen. This process could form the basis of life on other planets, and still plays a very important role in controlling the chemistry of our own modern planet,' says Dr Lloyd.

Although many of these processes take place underground on Earth, they control the way radioactive elements, metals and carbon based compounds move around in our environment. Specialist underground bacteria can gain energy from these unusual processes, and could be used in the future in new biotechnological applications to clean up polluted land, provide living batteries to supply electricity, or help deal with uranium and radioactive waste which has contaminated water.

'By very simply adding the right nutrients to stimulate some of these bacteria and microbes we should be able to guide them in the right direction to clean up contaminated sites,' says Dr Lloyd.

Many scientists think that using naturally occurring bacteria will be more cost effective than trying to clean up large areas of contaminated land with chemical procedures. The techniques can also be used to treat wastewaters from a range of industries including highly coloured water from textile dyeworks.

'We could use these bacteria out in the field or inside specially constructed bioreactors to treat liquid waste,' says Dr Lloyd. 'Working with the latest advances from the engineering community, we can develop new approaches by manipulating the environment around the bacterial cells, or by genetic engineering.'

'But sometimes these bacteria cause us harm. Understanding how they work will be enormously important to millions of people in Bangladesh and West Bengal who are being poisoned by arsenic that occurs naturally in sediments. The arsenic is being transferred into their drinking water and irrigation water through chemical changes brought about by metal-reducing bacteria,' says Dr Lloyd.

Other recently identified bacteria and micro-organisms make new minerals such as a magnetic compound of iron called magnetite, which is promising to be useful in nanotechnology applications including magnetic recording devices, hard drives and industrial catalysts.

'Because many of these new minerals are very small, on the nano-scale, they have surprising properties compared to similar bulk materials found in nature. We may also be able to trick these bacteria into making a range of magnetite based designer magnets with interesting commercially useful properties,' says Dr Lloyd.
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