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Bright Idea: Microbes That Make Electricity

  • Some microbes, such as bacteria and viruses, can make you sick. Under the right conditions, however, certain bacteria can also make electricity. Even the dreaded E. coli, which can cause unpleasant digestive issues if ingested, is a potential source of electricity. Though electrogenic bacteria, as these electricity-producing microbes are called, may seem like a rare and strange concept, sources as diverse and unexpected as jellyfish, sugar and bodily waste can also be used to create electricity. 

    Let’s take a look at some of the types of bacteria that can produce electricity and how they do it. 

    From Outer Space to Your Innards 

    Two types of bacteria show the greatest results in terms of producing electricity: Geobacter, which has been called “the most effective electricity producer,” and Shewanella. During scientific studies, researchers observed that these microorganisms could transfer electrons through a conductive circuit to produce electricity. Both Geobacter and Shewnella, which has been used by NASA to produce energy inside spacecraft, have been shown to generate about 4 watts of electricity per square meter.  

    While Geobacter and Shewnella are both often commonly found in aquatic sediment, other electrogenic bacteria can be found within our own bodies. Bacteria in our gut — the so-called “good bacteria” you hear about — are perhaps better described as great due to their ability to excrete electrons, because it essentially means they create electricity. Shocked? So are we! You may also be surprised to discover the astronomical number of bacteria, viruses, fungi and other microorganisms that call the human body home. (Refer to our Microbiome and Health Online Certificate, linked below, to learn more about this fascinating topic.)  

    How Do They Do It? 

    Bacteria are able to create electricity by “generating electrons in their cells and then transferring them across their cell membranes via tiny channels formed by surface proteins.” This process is called extracellular electron transfer (EET). When bacteria generate electrons, it’s an alternative way of “breathing” used to compensate for a lack of oxygen. Scientists studying EET still don’t fully understand some aspects of the phenomenon, but their ultimate aim is to develop microbial fuel cells capable of producing electricity in amounts sufficient to create a viable renewable fuel source. 

    Explore Bacteria’s Upsides and Downsides 

    The University of Florida offers two entirely online microbiology-focused programs that can help you advance your career in the field. Gain newfound skills and earn a credential quickly with one of our graduate certificate programs or position yourself for professional advancement with a master’s degree. You can also earn both simultaneously and add two respected credentials to your resume:    

    Graduate Certificate in Environmental Microbiology 

    Explore microbiology from an environmental perspective. Our online program covers topics including the diversity of microorganisms on our planet, bacterial physiology, energy production and biosynthesis. While completing the program’s 13 credits, you’ll build an in-depth knowledge and mastery of fundamental environmental microbiology concepts and processes. 

    Microbiome and Health Online Certificate 

    This 12-credit program was designed for anyone wishing to broaden their understanding of the microbiome as its effect on human health comes into sharper focus within the scientific community. You’ll explore crucial topics in microbiome, host/microbe interactions and advances in microbiome research and learn the technology currently used in the field. 

    Master of Science in Microbiology & Cell Science with a concentration in Medical Microbiology and Biochemistry 

    If you have completed a bachelor’s degree in the sciences from an accredited institution and meet all other requirements of our program, we invite you to embark on a more comprehensive exploration of microbiology in our online master’s degree program. In as little as one year, you’ll gain advanced knowledge in specialized topics from the multidimensional fields of microbiology and cell science that can position you for a rewarding career in a variety of related professions. Follow the suggested course path to earn both the Graduate Certificate in Environmental Microbiology and this master’s degree with just 30 credits!* It’s great for your wallet and for your resume.  

    The Higher Earning and Employment Potential of a Graduate Degree 

    According to a May 2020 report from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), professionals who’ve completed a master’s degree earn close to 20% more than those whose highest educational achievement is a bachelor’s degree. The BLS report also states that individuals who’ve earned a graduate degree have the highest rates of employment. Our microbiology master’s degree program can position you to enjoy a more rewarding and stable career in your field of interest. 

    Get a Quality Education From Anywhere, 24/7 

    All of the programs discussed here are offered entirely online, which means no campus visits or in-person lab sessions are required. The flexible, asynchronous format of these programs allows you to complete coursework at your own pace, practically anywhere. You’ll find this advantage invaluable if you have ongoing professional and personal commitments. Those important duties needn’t stop you from gaining new career-enhancing skills and credentials. The GRE is not required for admission to any of these graduate-level programs. All courses are taught by the same renowned faculty who teach on campus at UT Permian Basin and feature robust, up-to-date curriculum. 

    Discover how science can harness the electricity-producing ability of some microbes as an alternative energy source! Our online microbiology programs cover that and much more. 

    *Note: This does not apply if you plan to take SWS5305C or SWS6366 as part of your curriculum.  

     

    Sources:
    https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2020/02/electric-bacteria-create-currents-out-thin-and-thick-air 
    https://medium.com/technicity/scientists-might-have-discovered-an-unlikely-source-of-renewable-energy-74429c2fdafa
    https://gizmodo.com/12-unexpected-sources-of-energy-that-could-save-the-wor-1555080352
    https://www.engadget.com/2016-11-26-six-unexpected-sources-of-renewable-energy.html  

     

    At a Glance