Microbiologists have discovered that certain strains of bacteria are able to exist utilizing electricity alone, shedding light on a completely new mode of existence and raising questions of what alien life may be like.
Dubbed “electric bacteria” by scientists, the microbes are able to extract energy from rocks and metal, harvesting electrons for sustenance. According to io9, the bacteria even produce hair-like filaments that transfer electrons back to them, acting as electrical wires that connect the microbe with its environment.
Scientists are aware of two types of bacteria, Shewanella and Geobacter, which use pure electricity as food, according to a report in The New Scientist. Biologists are now using electricity to entice bacteria that they claim are so abundant, they’re “everywhere.”
According to Kenneth Nealson of the University of Southern California, Los Angeles, the discovery of electric bacteria should come as no surprise. “Life’s very clever,” Nealson points out, adding that “It figures out how to suck electrons out of everything we eat and keep them under control.” The vast majority of organisms utilize chemical processes to combine electrons with oxygen to generate energy, Nealson says:
“That’s the way we make all our energy and it’s the same for every organism on this planet. Electrons must flow in order for energy to be gained. This is why when someone suffocates another person they are dead within minutes. You have stopped the supply of oxygen, so the electrons can no longer flow.”
The discovery of the electric bacteria proves that life can do away with most of those chemical reactions and exist solely sustained by energy in its purest form. Nealson and his team are currently growing the electric bacteria, which he calls “truly foreign, you know… In a sense, alien.” In order to collect and grow the bacteria, his team collects sediment from the ocean and electrically stimulates it, measuring the current to determine if any of the electric bacteria are present in the substrate.
Annette Rowe, a PhD student working with Nealson, has identified eight different types of electric bacteria, and is submitting her results for publication. Nealson posits that the discoveries could mean “that there’s a whole part of the microbial world that we don’t know about.” NASA has also shown interest in the bacteria, which may provide a model for how life could exist in other parts of the solar system, where there is little energy to sustain it. As The Inquisitr has reported, NASA’s curiosity rover previously detected evidence that Mars once hosted bacterial life.
Electric bacteria could have many uses here on Earth as well. They could function as biomachines that draw their own power from their surroundings, and will be useful in experiments meant to shed light on how much energy is required to sustain life. Identifying the bare minimum amount of energy needed may mean that one of the fundamental existential questions of life could be answered by electric bacteria.
[Image via i09]