Genetically modified bacteria turns microbes into microchips with eco-electrical switch

Paul Eyers
By Paul Eyers
3 Min Read

Genetically modified bacteria could help build a greener future for electronics production thanks to electrifying new research.

Eco-engineered protein particles, initially produced by the E.coli bug, have been genetically modified by bacterial boffins at UNSW Sydney to amp up electrical sustainability research. 

These protein filaments, otherwise known as “nanowires”, were transformed from petri dishes to power source, conducting electricity over short distances and even harnessing energy from humid air. 

Experts believe the engineered nanowires could lead to innovations in energy harvesting, biomedical applications and environmental sensing, as well as amping up the use of sustainable conductive components. 

UNSW Sydney lead researcher and study author Dr Lorenzo Travaglini says the findings opened up the possibility for engineers to develop more sustainable and environmentally friendly electrical components and devices. 

“Ultimately, our goal is to modify the materials produced by bacteria to create electronic components. This could lead to a whole new era of green electronics, helping to shape a more sustainable future,” he said. 

E.coli bacteria, typically found in food sources, and known to cause violent bouts of diarrhoea, could be used to build the next generation of electronics.

Bacteria use conductive protein filaments known as nanowires to transfer electrons (tiny particles that carry an electric charge between atoms) across their cell membranes. 

Once extracted from the cell, these nanowires had limited functionality until they were genetically engineered in a lab to become more conductive. 

The scientists achieved this by adding a haemoglobin molecule found in blood to the nanowire, which, when placed close together, allows electrons to jump more easily between the nanowire, thus improving its conductivity. 

Research to help develop “green” electronics

This research is already generating a buzz in the electrical sustainability sector, thanks to the increased possibility of producing electrical devices sourced from sustainable and non-toxic materials that require ultra-low power.

Dr Travaglini says adjusting microbes into microchips opened the opportunity to generate a bioelectric boom that could spark an eco-electric revolution. 

“The electronics we tend to use are created through processes that require high temperatures and are energy-demanding. They’re not green, and the materials they are sourced from can be toxic,” Dr Travaglini said. 

“Using biomaterials to create electricity is far more environmentally friendly. We can produce these filaments from bacteria, and it’s scalable.”

Dr Travaglini warned electricians not to get too amped up by the discovery; with his team still in the early stages of research iit could be a while off until we see these engineered filaments used in everyday electronics.

“We don’t know how long exactly it’s going to take, but we can see that we are going in the right direction,” he said.

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Paul Eyers has worked as a journalist for a range of media publishers including News Corp and Network Ten. He has also worked outside of Australia, including time spent with ABS-CBN in the Philippines. Stepping away from the media, Paul spent five years sharpening his tools in construction - building his skill set and expertise within the trade industry. His diverse experiences and unique journey have equipped him with an insider view of Australia’s construction game to dig deep into the big stories.