Expressing the Geobacter metallireducens PilA in Geobacter sulfurreducens Yields Pili with Exceptional Conductivity

Yang Tan, Ramesh Y Adhikari, Nikhil S Malvankar, Joy E Ward, Trevor L Woodard, Kelly P Nevin, Derek R Lovley
MBio 2017 January 17, 8 (1)

The electrically conductive pili (e-pili) of Geobacter sulfurreducens serve as a model for a novel strategy for long-range extracellular electron transfer. e-pili are also a new class of bioelectronic materials. However, the only other Geobacter pili previously studied, which were from G. uraniireducens, were poorly conductive. In order to obtain more information on the range of pili conductivities in Geobacter species, the pili of G. metallireducens were investigated. Heterologously expressing the PilA gene of G. metallireducens in G. sulfurreducens yielded a G. sulfurreducens strain, designated strain MP, that produced abundant pili. Strain MP exhibited phenotypes consistent with the presence of e-pili, such as high rates of Fe(III) oxide reduction and high current densities on graphite anodes. Individual pili prepared at physiologically relevant pH 7 had conductivities of 277 ± 18.9 S/cm (mean ± standard deviation), which is 5,000-fold higher than the conductivity of G. sulfurreducens pili at pH 7 and nearly 1 million-fold higher than the conductivity of G. uraniireducens pili at the same pH. A potential explanation for the higher conductivity of the G. metallireducens pili is their greater density of aromatic amino acids, which are known to be important components in electron transport along the length of the pilus. The G. metallireducens pili represent the most highly conductive pili found to date and suggest strategies for designing synthetic pili with even higher conductivities.

IMPORTANCE: e-pili are a remarkable electrically conductive material that can be sustainably produced without harsh chemical processes from renewable feedstocks and that contain no toxic components in the final product. Thus, e-pili offer an unprecedented potential for developing novel materials, electronic devices, and sensors for diverse applications with a new "green" technology. Increasing e-pili conductivity will even further expand their potential applications. A proven strategy is to design synthetic e-pili that contain tryptophan, an aromatic amino acid not found in previously studied e-pili. The studies reported here demonstrate that a productive alternative approach is to search more broadly in the microbial world. Surprisingly, even though G. metallireducens and G. sulfurreducens are closely related, the conductivities of their e-pili differ by more than 3 orders of magnitude. The ability to produce e-pili with high conductivity without generating a genetically modified product enhances the attractiveness of this novel electronic material.

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