Chinese scientists create electricity-eating super bacteria

By Miles Goscha
1 min read

A team of researchers at the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Tianjin Institute of Industrial Biotechnology say they have genetically modified a strain of E coli to use electrons as a source of energy, the South China Morning Post reported

Why it matters: Manipulating a cell to feed off electric energy would mean possibly improving its performance capacity by up to 70%. The project’s lead scientist, Professor Bi Changhao, said the technology “should work on the cells of animals or human beings.” Implementing the modification in complex organisms will be a next step in their studies, Bi added.

  • Potential applications for the technology include increasing human physical strength, recovering tired muscles, producing biofuel, and treating cell-related diseases. 

Details: The study builds on research done on another bacterium, Shewanella oneidensis, which has similar electron-absorption capabilities. The same team published a paper earlier this year detailing how its DNA could be edited into other cells germ lines to give them the ability to absorb free-roaming electrons. 

  • A single-cell microorganism like E coli is far from a human in terms of complexity, so developing real-world applications will require additional experimentation.
  • More research needs to be done to better understand how the life cycle of an animal cell responds to electrical stimulation. 

Context: While it’s unclear whether the popular gene-editing tool CRISPR was used in this work, the gene editing done by the Tianjin team is decidedly less controversial than other experiments to come out of China in recent months. Scientists in the US have turned their attention to E coli’s electrical potential, as well: in January a team of Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) engineers used a genetically modified version of the bacterium to produce electricity, opening up possibilities for its use in fuel cells, water purification, self-repair, and bio-sensing.