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Scientists find that hundreds of gut bacteria are electric

New research uncovers a surprising fact about numerous types of gut bacteria: they can generate electricity.

Maria Cohut , Medical News Today, Sep 13, 2018

Electrogenic bacteria are those that are able to produce a certain amount of electricity.

For this reason, ongoing research is looking into ways to use these microorganisms to develop alternative, more sustainable battery-like devices.

So far, electrogenic bacteria have been found in fairly specific natural environments, such as the sediments of various bodies of water.

These environments are typically anaerobic, meaning that they do not contain free oxygen. Now, for the very first time, researchers from the University of California, Berkeley have found that hundred of different bacteria in the human gut are also electrogenic.

These include many types of bacteria, from pathogenic ones that are capable of causing disease, to probiotic bacteria that promote gut health. Yet these gut bacteria produce electricity using a different mechanism than that used by known electrogenic bacteria from other environments.

The researchers - led by Prof. Dan Portnoy - report their important discovery in a study paper that appears in the journal Nature.

A surprising discovery

Prof. Portnoy and team explain that some of the strands of electricity-generating bacteria that they have now identified include Listeria monocytogenes (a common culprit in cases of diarrhea), Clostridium perfringens (which causes gangrene), and Enterococcus faecalis (a pathogen sometimes acquired during hospital stays).

However, numerous other electricity-producing bacteria in the gut are benign. Some of these are probiotics, the researchers observe, while others, such as the Lactobacilli strains, play a role in fermentation.

"The fact that so many bugs that interact with humans, either as pathogens or in probiotics or in our microbiota or involved in fermentation of human products, are electrogenic - that had been missed before."

Prof. Dan Portnoy

This, he adds, "could tell us a lot about how these bacteria infect us or help us have a healthy gut."

Also, the scientists expect that their unexpected finding may also be helpful in future projects that aim to create microbial fuel cell, an innovative strategy to generate renewable energy.

The researchers explain that bacteria generate electricity as part of their metabolism, in a process that they compare to breathing.

However, whereas organisms such as plants and animals, which live in oxygen-rich environments, use oxygen to aid them in their metabolism, bacteria that reside in anaerobic environments must use other chemical elements.

So, bacteria that reside at the bottom of lakes typically use a mineral, such as iron or manganese, during their complex metabolic process, thereby generating electricity.

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