Bacteria Are Mysteriously Producing Power Cables on the Ocean Floor

Making electricity is a huge pain in the ass for us humans. For the majority of our power, we have to go find coal—of which there's less and less every year—lug it to a power plant that we also had to build and then find some miserable soul to shovel...

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Oct 25 2012, 6:51pm

Making electricity is a huge pain in the ass for us humans. For the majority of our power, we have to go find coal—of which there’s less and less every year, and yeah, it’s kinda dirty—lug it to a power plant that we also had to build, and then find some miserable soul to shovel it into a big oven, all so that we can spin a little magnet inside some coiled up wire. (This is a highly simplified version of how electricity is made, one that I’ll get back to in a second.) Why can’t we just be like cable bacteria, which are strings of cells that both create and transport electricity? Well, the “why” is an existential question best left to late nights and large amounts of whiskey, but change it “how” and things get interesting.

Deriving from the family Desulfobulbaceae, these cable bacteria line the ocean floor. The microbes are very small, about a centimeter long and a hundred times thinner than a human hair, but there’s a ton them. A single square meter of mud could hold enough of the cable bacteria that if you unravelled them, the resulting string would measure tens of thousands of kilometers.

Combo-pack of cable bacteria images (that’s a clump of them on the top right) via Not Exactly Rocket Science.

What’s interesting about these things isn’t that they’re all over the place. We’ve known for a long time that there are a lot of bacteria out there. Rather, it’s the very useful byproduct the bacteria produce: electricity. As the bacteria consume oxygen in the seawater, they poop out methane but also create an electric current that runs through the organism that then resembles a tangled lamp cord.

If scientists could figure out how to mimic this process, it could be very useful, especially for things like medical devices. “On the one hand, it is still very unreal and fantastic,” said microbial ecologist Dr. Nils Risgaard-Petersen, of Aarhus University. “On the other hand, it is also very tangible.” Risgaard-Peterson described the bacteria as “electron transporters” and added, “Living, electrical cables add a new dimension to the understanding of interactions in nature and may find use in technology development.”

Let’s not get carried away, though. It’s unclear exactly how much electricity these cable bacteria produce or transport, but it’s probably not enough to keep your lights on. It does provide you with a good reason to watch where you step next time you go scuba diving, though.

Image via Flickr