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Microbes zap nuclear waste

Barrels of nuclear waste

Researchers at MSU have unraveled the mystery of how microbes generate electricity while cleaning up nuclear waste and other toxic metals.

The implications could eventually benefit sites forever changed by nuclear contamination, says MSU microbiologist Gemma Reguera.

“Geobacter bacteria are tiny micro-organisms that can play a major role in cleaning up polluted sites around the world,” says Reguera, an MSU AgBioResearch scientist. “Uranium contamination can be produced at any step in the production of nuclear fuel, and this process safely prevents its mobility and the hazard for exposure.”

The ability of Geobacter to immobilize uranium has been well documented. However, identifying the Geobacters’ conductive pili or nanowires as doing the yeoman’s share of the work is a new revelation. Nanowires, hair-like appendages found on the outside of Geobacters, are the managers of electrical activity during a cleanup. The nanowires also shield Geobacter and allow the bacteria to thrive in a toxic environment.

Reguera has filed patents to build on her research, which could lead to the development of microbial fuel cells capable of generating electricity while cleaning up after environmental disasters.

Read more about the electricity-producing microbes.

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