Nuclear spills, like the one currently being managed at Fukushima, spell big trouble for human and environmental health. But scientists are one step closer to understanding how tiny microbes could speed clean-up.
Scientists at Michigan State University recently unraveled the mystery of how microbes generate electricity while cleaning up nuclear waste and other toxic metals.
While monitoring tiny microbes called Geobacter bacteria, researchers noticed nanowires, hair-like appendages on the outside of Geobacters, were managing electrical activity during a cleanup. Although Geobacter's propensity for isolating and eliminating uranium was well known before this, identifying the conductive pili or nanowires as the muscle of the operation is a new revelation.
“Our findings clearly identify nanowires as being the primary catalyst for uranium reduction,” said Gemma Reguera, MSU microbiologist. “They are essentially performing nature’s version of electroplating with uranium, effectively immobilizing the radioactive material and preventing it from leaching into groundwater.”
The nanowires also shield Geobacter and allow the bacteria to thrive in a toxic environment, she added.
Reguera and her team of researchers were able to genetically engineer a Geobacter strain with enhanced nanowire production. The modified version improved the efficiency of the bacteria’s ability to immobilize uranium proportionally to the number of nanowires while subsequently improving its viability as a catalytic cell.
This means that in the future, we may be able to create a super-Geobacter that could produce significant amounts of clean energy while also helping to restore contaminated sites.
Image Credit: Flickr - Caroline Davis 2010