Microbial nanowires: a new paradigm for biological electron transfer and bioelectronics

Nikhil S Malvankar, Derek R Lovley
ChemSusChem 2012, 5 (6): 1039-46
The discovery that Geobacter sulfurreducens can produce protein filaments with metallic-like conductivity, known as microbial nanowires, that facilitate long-range electron transport is a paradigm shift in biological electron transfer and has important implications for biogeochemistry, microbial ecology, and the emerging field of bioelectronics. Although filaments in a wide diversity of microorganisms have been called microbial nanowires, the type IV pili of G. sulfurreducens and G. metallireducens are the only filaments that have been shown to be required for extracellular electron transport to extracellular electron acceptors or for conduction of electrons through biofilms. Studies of G. sulfurreducens pili preparations and intact biofilms under physiologically relevant conditions have provided multiple lines of evidence for metallic-like conduction along the length of pili and for the possibility of pili networks to confer high conductivity within biofilms. This mechanism of electron conduction contrasts with the previously known mechanism for biological electron transfer via electron tunneling or hopping between closely associated molecules, a strategy unlikely to be well adapted for long-range electron transport outside the cell. In addition to promoting electron exchange with abiotic electron acceptors, microbial nanowires have recently been shown to be involved in direct interspecies electron transfer between syntrophic partners. An improved understanding of the mechanisms for metallic-like conductivity in microbial nanowires, as well as engineering microorganisms with desirable catalytic abilities with nanowires, could lead to new applications in microbial electrosynthesis and bioelectronics.

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