This Electric Bacteria Lives Off Pure Energy

07.17.14 Sophie Weiner

A new and strange breed of bacteria has been recently discovered by PhD student Annette Rowe. Scientists are already aware of bacteria that can eat “pure energy” — microorganisms like Shewanella and Geobacter that harvest electrons from rocks, metals and, sometimes, battery electrodes manipulated by scientists — but now Rowe has discovered eight new varieties of these bacteria that eat electrons.

Animals digest food with extra electrons and breathe oxygen to get rid of them. All living things rely on the passing of electrons in chemical interactions for survival. The energy-eating bacteria accomplish this in a much more efficient way, New Scientist writes.

The discovery of electric bacteria shows that some very basic forms of life can do away with sugary middlemen and handle the energy in its purest form – electrons, harvested from the surface of minerals.

Kenneth Nealson of the University of Southern California calls the bacteria “truly foreign” and “in a sense, alien.” The eating and excreting of electrons by the bacteria, as observed in the lab, creates a current that the scientists can detect, proving that the electric bacteria are processing electrons — the basic work of life. Scientist Yuri Gorby believes that if these bacteria truly exist solely by eating electrons and breathing them out, they might be able to live forever.

There are other big implications for the discovery of these electric bacteria. NASA is very interested in life forms that can live in inhospitable places off such little energy, as they could model how life works on other planets. The bacteria could find use in the home as well, “creating biomachines that do useful things like clean up sewage or contaminated groundwater while drawing their own power from their surroundings.” (Image: New Scientist)