Scientists discover on-off switch for bacteria that breathe electricity

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Animation shows a hair-like structure called a pili pushing a nanowire through the membrane of a bacterial cell

A hair-like structure (light blue) in a Geobacter microbe pushes a nanowire (red) out through the surface of the cell. These nanowires allow the bacteria to “exhale” electricity. (Image credit: NIKHIL MALVANKAR / YALE UNIVERSITY)

Deep beneath the seabed, teensy bacteria “exhale” electricity through long, skinny snorkels, and now, scientists have discovered how to switch these microbes’ electric breath on and off.     

These bizarre bacteria rely on two proteins, which band together in a single hair-like structure called a pilus, the researchers reported in a new study, published Wednesday (Sept. 1) in the journal Nature. Many of these pili lie just beneath the bacterial membrane and help push the snorkels out of the cell and into the surrounding environment, thus allowing the microbe to breathe.

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