The University of East Anglia – doing something useful for a change

When we hear “University of East Anglia” we automatically associate it with ClimateGate, Dr. Phil Jones, and the sorts of childish shenanigans recently reported by Bishop Hill where they break the FOIA law, again.

But it is nice to know other people at the university aren’t part of the embarrassing, nefarious Climate Research Unit, and actually can produce some useful research that will better the world.

From this UEA press release:

Discovery opens the door to electricity from microbes

Using bacteria to generate energy is a signifiant step closer following a breakthrough discovery by scientists from the School of Biological Sciences at UEA.

Published today by the leading scientific journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), the research demonstrates for the first time the exact molecular structure of the proteins which enable bacterial cells to transfer electrical charge.

The discovery means scientists can now start developing ways to ‘tether’ bacteria directly to electrodes – creating efficient microbial fuel cells or ‘bio-batteries’. The advance could also hasten the development of microbe-based agents that can clean up oil or uranium pollution, and fuel cells powered by human or animal waste.

“This is an exciting advance in our understanding of how some bacterial species move electrons from the inside to the outside of a cell,” said Dr Tom Clarke.

“Identifying the precise molecular structure of the key proteins involved in this process is a crucial step towards tapping into microbes as a viable future source of electricity.”

Funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) and the US Department of Energy, the project is led by Dr Clarke, Prof David Richardson and Prof Julea Butt of the School of Biological Sciences UEA, in collaboration with colleagues at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in the US.

Discovery opens the door to electricity from microbes

In earlier research published by PNAS in 2009, the team demonstrated the mechanism by which bacteria survive in oxygen-free environments by constructing electrical wires that extend through the cell wall and make contact with a mineral – a process called iron respiration or ‘breathing rocks’. (See http://www.uea.ac.uk/bio/news/rocknews)

In this latest research, the scientists used a technique called x-ray crystallography to reveal the molecular structure of the proteins attached to the surface of a Shewanella oneidensis cell through which electrons are transferred.

Structure of a bacterial cell surface deca-heme electron conduit’ by T Clarke (UEA), M Edwards (UEA), A Gates (UEA), A Hall (UEA), G White (UEA), J Bradley (UEA), C Reardon (PNNL), L Shi

28 thoughts on “The University of East Anglia – doing something useful for a change

  1. Not to be funny but what I do know about UEA is that its hierarchy is unconcerned with the integrity or otherwise of its research staff. Moreover, that hierarchy is complicit in anti-scientific practices.
    The research sounds interesting. I’ll get excited about it once it’s been independently replicated by a group of scientists from a seat of learning with some credibility.

  2. Good to see, that real scientists manage to work around moral and administrative hurdles like VC Edward Acton.

  3. Oh boy.. I can seriously see a movie being made about this technology going horribly wrong..

  4. Too bad parts of the UEA can’t completely disown other parts–that should be as available as acquiring tenure.

  5. University of East Anglia gets something right: It’s amazing what can be learned by sticking to the scientific method and leaving political agendas to the knuckle-draggers.

  6. A thousand puns come to mind, but I do wonder how this might clean up ‘uranium pollution.’ And a definition of uranium pollution would help.

  7. I would have said “there is something NOT rotten in Denmark!“. But we’re talking bacteria here…
    I am afraid this new line of research will smell just as bad as the usual CRU fare.

  8. Rick Rempel says: “University of East Anglia gets something right: It’s amazing what can be learned by sticking to the scientific method and leaving political agendas to the knuckle-draggers.”
    Is it earning or learning that is the primary focus at UEA?

  9. Hah!
    Forget storage, what we are looking at here is our next ‘hard disk’. 1 TB on a microscopic dot. Now, that’s density. Now we just have to work out a way to read and write to the little blighters….

  10. Jerome: “1 TB on a microscopic dot“.
    Imagine the FOI requests of 2041, refused by UEA on the basis that “somebody has sneezed and all our data have been scattered all over the floor“…

  11. Another ‘cold fusion’ story?
    I get worried when reports start to appear before the research has finished. This could be another blind ally.

  12. I can’t wait for the response from PETA ….. Inhumane treatment of microbes, Call for microbe rights, microbes have feelings too etc. Ha ha ha!

  13. This, among other reasons, is why I don’t listen to the prophets of doom regarding our future energy sources. They seem to completely disregard human ingenuity and inventiveness.
    Gas-turbine engine inside a silicon chip! It may fail or succeed but it illustrates that humans have great curiosity.
    http://web.mit.edu/newsoffice/2006/microengines.html

  14. Note there isn’t an electron volt measurement or anything in the released data that would let you calculate the energy produced. Most of these discoveries are like in-home sewage treatment systems. It’s really good to know how things work and how one could build a working version but in the then growing corn and burning it will prove immensely more practical. The true beneficiaries will be the savings accounts of the researchers and university folks.

  15. Mike McMillan says: “I do wonder how this might clean up ‘uranium pollution.’ And a definition of uranium pollution would help”.
    Mike,
    Uranium waste was put into the ground in forms that allowed water soluble salts to form and be carried into the water table. These salts can be converted to insoluble form by changing the electronic configuration of the uranium ion bonding (by adding electrons). This makes the waste long term safe.

  16. But how can we trust that any part of UEA is really doing science? Oh, but they do have a pretty diagram, so they must deserve more money.

  17. Hoser says:
    May 23, 2011 at 11:07 pm
    We all have little batteries inside us already

    Wasn’t that the premise of “The Matrix”?

  18. Just another dim research project that has to justify it’s funding.Nothing new,read this somewhere before years ago.Now how about a research program into Static Electricity,like if we could all link up to the national grid whilste undressing.Now let me think?First baffle Jounalists with bullshine,Next politicians because they-are as thick as shi*,promise them glory and re-election and enlightenment,it’s easy.Must ask for support from colleagues, err,Phill,Mann,Guardian,Royal Society,err, let me see my list, I can’t remember all of them.

  19. LearDog says:
    May 24, 2011 at 4:30 am
    I can’t wait for the response from PETA ….. Inhumane treatment of microbes, Call for microbe rights, microbes have feelings too etc. Ha ha ha!
    ew-3 says:
    May 24, 2011 at 4:42 am
    Expect PETA to get involved and protect the microbes from being enslaved.

    You realize bacteria aren’t animals, right?

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