Gemma Reger’s team at Michigan State University has proven that bacteria can be an incredible thing that can repair polluted water and soil and absorb toxic pollutants, creating a shield or suit of toxic metal around them.
Reger’s team worked with bacteria found in soil and sediment known as Geobacter. These bacteria also produce “microbial nanowires,” the elementary protein filaments that can conduct electricity. In their latest project, the team investigated what happens to bacteria when they encounter cobalt.
Cobalt is a valuable but increasingly scarce metal used in batteries for electric vehicles and alloys for spaceships. It is also highly toxic to living things, including humans and bacteria. But Geobacter is a unique and very hardy bacterium. It can block the ingress of uranium pollutants into groundwater, and it can also receive energy from minerals containing iron oxide, in fact, “breathing” rust.
But Geobacter is an effective cobalt miner, extracting metal from rust, preventing it from entering its body, and killing them. These bacteria cover themselves with metal.
“They form cobalt nanoparticles on their surface. They metallize themselves, and it’s like a shield that protects them. It looks like Iron Man when he puts on a suit. ”
Gemma Reger, Professor, Department of Microbiology and Molecular Genetics, Michigan State University
Scientists view this discovery as a proof of concept that opens the door to some interesting possibilities. For example, Geobacter could be the backbone of new biotechnology designed to recover and recycle cobalt from lithium-ion batteries. You can also use Geobacter as a means of absorbing other toxic metals that were previously thought to be deadly to bacteria. Perhaps Geobacter can help remove cadmium from water and soil, a metal found in industrial pollution.