Seeing is believing: novel imaging techniques help clarify microbial nanowire structure and function

Derek R Lovley, Nikhil S Malvankar
Environmental Microbiology 2015, 17 (7): 2209-15
Novel imaging approaches have recently helped to clarify the properties of 'microbial nanowires'. Geobacter sulfurreducens pili are actual wires. They possess metallic-like conductivity, which can be attributed to overlapping pi-pi orbitals of key aromatic amino acids. Electrostatic force microscopy recently confirmed charge propagation along the pili, in a manner similar to carbon nanotubes. The pili are essential for long-range electron transport to insoluble electron acceptors and interspecies electron transfer. Previous claims that Shewanella oneidensis also produce conductive pili have recently been recanted, based on novel live-imaging studies. The putative pili are, in fact, long extensions of the cytochrome-rich outer membrane and periplasm that, when dried, collapse to form filaments with dimensions similar to pili. It has yet to be demonstrated whether the cytochrome-to-cytochrome electron hopping documented in the dried membrane extensions takes place in intact hydrated membrane extensions or whether the membrane extensions enhance electron transport to insoluble electron acceptors such as Fe(III) oxides or electrodes. These findings demonstrate that G. sulfurreducens conductive pili and the outer membrane extensions of S. oneidensis are fundamentally different in composition, mechanism of electron transport and physiological role. New methods for evaluating filament conductivity will facilitate screening the microbial world for nanowires and elucidating their function.

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