Hundreds of Geobacter bacteria clump together so they can shoot excess electrons through ‘giant snorkels’ called nanowires (red). For mouthless, lungless bacteria, breathing is a bit more complicated than it is for humans. We inhale oxygen and exhale carbon dioxide ; Geobacter — a ubiquitous, groundwater-dwelling genus of bacteria — swallow up organic waste and “exhale” electrons, generating a tiny electric current in the process.
Those waste electrons always need somewhere to go (usually into a plentiful underground mineral like iron oxide), and Geobacter have an unconventional tool to make sure they get there.
” Geobacter breathe through what is essentially a giant snorkel, hundreds of times their size,” Nikhil Malvankar, an assistant professor at Yale University’s Microbial Science Institute in Connecticut, told Live Science.
That “snorkel” is called a nanowire. Though these tiny, conductive filaments are 100,000 times smaller than the width of a human hair, they are capable of shuttling electrons hundreds to thousands of times the length of an individual Geobacter microbe’s body. Thanks to this adaptation, Geobacter are some of the most impressive respirators on Earth. (“You can’t exhale 1,000 feet [300 meters] in front of you, can you?” Malvankar said).
At any given time, billions of the bacteria […]
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