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Taming Cable bacteria

Carlsberg Foundation Reintegration Fellowships


I will work on taming cable bacteria, an organism which can transport electrons over centimeter distances inside internal wires. These bacteria were originally discovered in Aarhus Bay, and essentially function like living electrical wires. They are found in coastal waters, lakes, and rivers across the world, and are important in preventing toxic sulfides from reaching the sea water. I will be trying to bring these bacteria from the wild into a more controlled laboratory environment so that we can learn even more about their electric lifestyle.


How cable bacteria manage to move electrons over such large distances is still unclear, and the nature of the internal wires are of great interest to scientists. The bacteria, however, grow in what is essentially mud, and this makes any analysis of their composition extremely challenging. If we can take them from this dirty environment to a cleaner, more controlled environment, it makes all the subsequent work on them much more feasible, and greatly expands the kind of analysis we can subject them to.


I will be working with a team of scientists at the Center for Electromicrobiology at Aarhus University, which is very focused on research into these bacteria. We will be using a mixture of molecular DNA methods to monitor our success, electrodes which we hope they will use to breathe via, and more old-fashioned culturing techniques. Cable bacteria have a complex lifestyle, and have resisted any attempts at growing them cleanly so far, so the most important ingredient in this project will be a creative approach to taming them


This project is very much basic research without a clear end application. However, cable bacteria, and especially the electric internal wire they have inside gives great promise for future application. Once we can produce cable bacteria and their internal wire in large quantities, they could be used as bioelectronics, which are toxin-free, biodegradable and grown by bacteria. Cable bacteria are being assessed as a tool to clean up polluted lakes, for finding contaminated groundwater sites and appear to help in the degradation of pollutants in river sediments.