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Bacterial Nanowires Not What Scientists Thought They Were

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Moh El-Naggar served as corresponding author of the study. (Photo Credit: USC/Matt Meindl)

For the past 10 years, scientists have been fascinated by a type of “electric bacteria” that shoots out long tendrils like electric wires, using them to power themselves and transfer electricity to a variety of solid surfaces. A team led by scientists at USC has now turned the study of these bacterial nanowires on its head, discovering that the key features in question are not pili, as previously believed, but rather extensions of the bacteria’s outer membrane equipped with proteins that transfer electrons called “cytochromes.” Scientists had long suspected that bacterial nanowires were pili — Latin for “hair” — which are hair-like features common on other bacteria, allowing them to adhere to surfaces and even connect to one another. Understanding the way these electric bacteria work has applications well beyond the lab. Such creatures have the potential to address some of the big questions about the nature of life itself, including what types of lifeforms we might find in extreme environments, such as space. In addition, this research has the potential to inform the creation of living, microbial circuits — forming the foundation of hybrid biological-synthetic electronic devices.