Tuesday, 12 October 2010

Things you didn't know you didn't know

This is amazing! I found this article in Biology Today about bacteria called Shewanella which grow tiny hairs when times get tough.  The researchers called them nanowires and the first publications about them appeared in 2006, so it's a pretty new field.

Turns out the nanowires actually conduct electricity, and colonies of Shewanella can join up their nanowires, giving, amongst other things, the possibility of inter-bacterial communication, though that's still speculative.

One of many bits of information I didn't know was that bacterial respiration can be described as 'giving up electrons' and that our own breathing is fundamentally just that, though we use oxygen to accept the electrons and bacteria use other electron acceptors.

Electricity carried on nanowires may be a lifeline. Bacteria respire by losing electrons to an acceptor – for Shewanella, a metal such as iron. (Breathing is a special case: Humans respire by giving up electrons to oxygen, one of the most powerful electron acceptors.)
So when times are tough and there's not much for a hapless bacterium to dump electrons onto (ie respire) it grows nanowires which join up to its mates' nanowires and hopefully the colony can find some electron-acceptors somewhere, enabling the whole colony to survive.
"This would be basically a community response to transfer electrons," El-Naggar explained. "It would be a form of cooperative breathing."
Neat, eh?

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