How Tiny Bacteria Are Turning Sewage into Electricity
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“E. Coli Supercharged: How Tiny Bacteria Are Turning Sewage into Electricity”

E. Coli Supercharged: How Tiny Bacteria Are Turning Sewage into Electricity. In a significant leap forward for bioelectronics, scientists at EPFL have achieved an incredible breakthrough by supercharging E. coli bacteria to produce electricity. This remarkable method not only provides an eco-friendly solution for handling organic waste but also surpasses previous advanced technologies, paving the way for a microbial-powered future. Professor Ardemis Boghossian of EPFL explains, “We’ve modified E. coli bacteria, which are among the most extensively studied microbes, to generate electricity. While there are rare microbes that naturally make electricity, they require specific chemicals to do so.On the contrary, E. coli bacteria exhibit versatility by thriving in diverse environments, allowing us to harness electricity from sources like wastewater.

In a groundbreaking research paper featured in the journal Joule, Professor Ardemis Boghossian’s team achieved a significant milestone in the field of bioelectronics. They successfully amplified the electricity-generating capability of common E. coli bacteria. This groundbreaking achievement could potentially revolutionize both waste management and the generation of energy. The procedure entails harnessing the power of E. coli bacteria to generate electricity using a process referred to as extracellular electron transfer

(EET). The scientists at EPFL have genetically modified these bacteria, enhancing their EET capabilities, effectively transforming them into highly efficient “electric microbes.”

In contrast to previous methods that depended on specific chemicals, these bioengineered E. coli can generate electricity while decomposing various organic materials. One of the most remarkable innovations in this study is the development of a comprehensive EET pathway within E. coli, an accomplishment previously unattained. Through the incorporation of elements from Shewanella oneidensis MR-1, a bacterium well-known for its capacity to generate electricity, the scientists effectively established an enhanced pathway that extended across both the inner and outer cell membranes. This innovative strategy led to a threefold surge in the production of electrical current compared to traditional methods. What’s particularly noteworthy is the adaptability of the engineered E. coli, as it thrived in diverse settings, including wastewater from a brewery. While exotic electric microbes struggled to endure, the modified E. coli not only survived but thrived, underscoring its potential for large-scale waste treatment and electricity generation.

Professor Boghossian highlights, “Instead of expending energy to process organic waste, we are now simultaneously producing electricity while dealing with organic waste—achieving two goals at once! We also conducted a direct test of our technology using wastewater from a nearby brewery in Lausanne known as Les Brasseurs. The exotic electric microbes couldn’t survive in this environment, but our bioengineered electric bacteria not only survived but multiplied significantly by feeding on the waste. The significance of this research goes well beyond waste management. The adapted E. coli, capable of producing electricity from a broad spectrum of resources, has the potential for diverse applications across fields such as microbial fuel cells, electrosynthesis, and biosensing. Moreover, its genetic flexibility enables tailored adaptation to flourish in particular surroundings and with specific materials, rendering it a versatile instrument for advancing sustainable technologies.

Mouhib, the study’s lead author, remarks, “Our work is exceptionally relevant as engineered bioelectric microbes are increasingly finding practical uses in the real world. We have achieved a groundbreaking milestone compared to previous cutting-edge methods, which relied on incomplete pathways. Given the ongoing research efforts in this field, we are enthusiastic about the future of bioelectric bacteria and anticipate its expansion to new horizons.”

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