Extracellular reduction of uranium via Geobacter conductive pili as a protective cellular mechanism

Dena L Cologgi, Sanela Lampa-Pastirk, Allison M Speers, Shelly D Kelly, Gemma Reguera
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 2011 September 13, 108 (37): 15248-52
The in situ stimulation of Fe(III) oxide reduction by Geobacter bacteria leads to the concomitant precipitation of hexavalent uranium [U(VI)] from groundwater. Despite its promise for the bioremediation of uranium contaminants, the biological mechanism behind this reaction remains elusive. Because Fe(III) oxide reduction requires the expression of Geobacter's conductive pili, we evaluated their contribution to uranium reduction in Geobacter sulfurreducens grown under pili-inducing or noninducing conditions. A pilin-deficient mutant and a genetically complemented strain with reduced outer membrane c-cytochrome content were used as controls. Pili expression significantly enhanced the rate and extent of uranium immobilization per cell and prevented periplasmic mineralization. As a result, pili expression also preserved the vital respiratory activities of the cell envelope and the cell's viability. Uranium preferentially precipitated along the pili and, to a lesser extent, on outer membrane redox-active foci. In contrast, the pilus-defective strains had different degrees of periplasmic mineralization matching well with their outer membrane c-cytochrome content. X-ray absorption spectroscopy analyses demonstrated the extracellular reduction of U(VI) by the pili to mononuclear tetravalent uranium U(IV) complexed by carbon-containing ligands, consistent with a biological reduction. In contrast, the U(IV) in the pilin-deficient mutant cells also required an additional phosphorous ligand, in agreement with the predominantly periplasmic mineralization of uranium observed in this strain. These findings demonstrate a previously unrecognized role for Geobacter conductive pili in the extracellular reduction of uranium, and highlight its essential function as a catalytic and protective cellular mechanism that is of interest for the bioremediation of uranium-contaminated groundwater.

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