Uranium munching microbes

From Michigan State University

Microbes generate electricity while cleaning up nuclear waste

EAST LANSING, Mich. — Researchers at Michigan State University have unraveled the mystery of how microbes generate electricity while cleaning up nuclear waste and other toxic metals.

Details of the process, which can be improved and patented, are published in the current issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The implications could eventually benefit sites forever changed by nuclear contamination, said Gemma Reguera, MSU microbiologist.

“Geobacter bacteria are tiny micro-organisms that can play a major role in cleaning up polluted sites around the world,” said Reguera, who is 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.

“Our findings clearly identify nanowires as being the primary catalyst for uranium reduction,” Reguera said. “They are essentially performing nature’s version of electroplating with uranium, effectively immobilizing the radioactive material and preventing it from leaching into groundwater.”

The nanowires also shield Geobacter and allow the bacteria to thrive in a toxic environment, she added.

Their effectiveness was proven during a cleanup in a uranium mill tailings site in Rifle, Colo. Researchers injected acetate into contaminated groundwater. Since this is Geobacters’ preferred food, it stimulated the growth of the Geobacter community already in the soil, which in turn, worked to remove the uranium, Reguera said.

Reguera and her team of researchers were able to genetically engineer a Geobacter strain with enhanced nanowire production. The modified version improved the efficiency of the bacteria’s ability to immobilize uranium proportionally to the number of nanowires while subsequently improving its viability as a catalytic cell.

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.


The research team included Dena Cologgi and Allison Speers, MSU graduate students, and Sanela Lampa-Pastirk and Shelly Kelly, post-doctoral researchers. The National Institute of Environmental Health Science and the U.S. Department of Energy funded the study.

0 0 votes
Article Rating
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
September 6, 2011 9:10 pm

A future slathered in paint-on solar panels, whole provinces covered with wind turbines, laced with a web of nanowires. Oh, and a lonely cabin in the wilderness with one light bulb.

September 6, 2011 9:18 pm

Time for a beta test in Japan then.
Air-drop the little buggers and let them have a feast.

September 6, 2011 9:24 pm

Isn’t acetate a carcinogen?? OOOOPS!! Envirowhackjobs ain’t gonna like this for a number of reasons including it makes nuclear power even safer to use.

September 6, 2011 9:25 pm

sorry, UN Agenda 21 doesn’t allow lonely cabins in the wilderness with or without light bulbs.

September 6, 2011 9:38 pm

Can you harness the electricity without biofouling? What it the current?

September 6, 2011 9:43 pm

First petroleum munching microbes. http://www.fastcompany.com/1770780/microbes-quickly-gobbled-up-oil-after-gulf-oil-disaster-study
Now this. Our world and environment is IMHO poorly understood. Consequences of human actions, intended and otherwise, are poorly understood.
Step one: assure measurement is good and free from judgment other than honesty.
Step two: assure science is free from exaggeration of certainty and exaggeration of consequence.
Step three: re-measure.
Step four: learn something new
Just my thoughts (gedanken)
Oh. And I believe there is a lot we can yet learn.

Anything is possible
September 6, 2011 9:49 pm

And not a model in sight…..
On that basis alone, it gets my vote!

Martin Brumby
September 6, 2011 11:03 pm

I wonder if she can get Geobacters trained to clean up the corrupt, dogma ridden and incompetent “climate scientist” community and their protectors and defenders in the wider scientific world?
That’d likely give the little critters some severe flatulence!

September 6, 2011 11:11 pm

How is it that a researcher, doing work on the public dime, can patent her results? Aren’t her results the property of the public? Well, they should be.

Larry in Texas
September 7, 2011 12:00 am

Another excellent idea, the product of American innovation! Those little beasties, can they eat debt, too? Lol!

John Moss
September 7, 2011 12:21 am

“How is it that a researcher, doing work on the public dime, can patent her results? Aren’t her results the property of the public? Well, they should be.” – Gary Turner 11.11pm
Gary, It will take several more millions to turn this in to a working product if it ever makes it. Far better the public purse funds the research – which commercial interests would not – to the point where it is capable of attracting private finance, then lets the business community commercialise it. Patenting is a key part of that process and the pay back will come – if it is succesful – in the taxes paid on the profits made.
I can’t imagine what would happen if politicians and government bureuacrats tried to take it forward to commercial use – probably it would cost millions more, then fail!

September 7, 2011 12:35 am

GregO says:
September 6, 2011 at 9:43 pm
Step one: assure measurement is good and free from judgment other than honesty.
Step two: assure science is free from exaggeration of certainty and exaggeration of consequence.
Step three: re-measure.
Step four: learn something new

Elegant, spoken by one in touch with the first maxim of science: Curiosity.
Nowadays science seems saturated with a new maxim: “To whom must I pander?”

September 7, 2011 12:57 am

Can they develop one that feeds on Congressmen?

September 7, 2011 1:27 am

What’s the specificity for U? It might be nice to see if this geobacter or another could pick up other problematic toxic metals like Hg. In Japan, U is not a problem, but Cs is. You might be amazed by the amount of U and other radioactive elements in some very popular mineral waters. If the element is prone to bioconcentration, then it is more likely to cause trouble.

John Marshall
September 7, 2011 2:06 am

Uranium is an element so cannot be broken down into anything simpler by chemical means. These bacteria must use chemical means so how is the uranium ‘cleaned up’ and more importantly what happens to the radioactivity which actually does all the damage.
Or have I missed something.

Steve Keohane
September 7, 2011 3:01 am

Living not far from Rifle, CO, one of the peculiarities of this area is radon gas, a product of uranium breaking down. It would be nice to be able to reduce this gas in our home environments. On another note, it is interesting this works, but with all the hoopla over frakking, I doubt this will be okay to use.

Brian H
September 7, 2011 3:12 am

It doesn’t clean up the U, just “immobilizes” it, and removes it from the water table, so it can’t migrate and spread.

September 7, 2011 3:37 am

Uranium decays into lead- do they prevent that?

September 7, 2011 3:48 am

Especially beautiful because the researchers did REAL research on-site with a REAL problem. Most research, even if well-done, stays in the lab and leaves the application step for others. Thus the application never happens. This time there’s no excuse!
“One word, young man: Bacteria.”

John Marshall
September 7, 2011 4:18 am

BM thanks for that.
So with the U rendered insoluble perhaps we can remove it for future use.

September 7, 2011 5:58 am

If the process is patented, she would be listed as inventor, but probably would not hold the patent. I earned a patent in the course of my employment. I’m listed as inventor, but Novell owns it.

Rhys Jaggar
September 7, 2011 6:13 am

What a fantastic piece of science. I hope it has global applications which benefit the scientists, funders etc etc hugely, by which I mean I hope they filed great patents. Unless someone has an even better way of doing it or came up with the idea first!!
I liken this science in the nuclear field to the brave funders in gene therapy who stuck with it 10 years ago after the Gelsinger set back.
Doggedly sticking to your beliefs, learning from set backs and finding ways to bring good things to fruition.
This represents the very best of America – a beautiful solution to something of global concern.
Well done.

Nuke Nemesis
September 7, 2011 6:28 am

Gary Turner says:
September 6, 2011 at 11:11 pm
How is it that a researcher, doing work on the public dime, can patent her results? Aren’t her results the property of the public? Well, they should be.

Unfortunately, that’s been the status quo for some time. I think it’s something we need to look at. Perhaps the public needs to be given a share of the profits (if any) from those patents? Remember, letting the researcher keep the bulk of the profit encourages research and innovation.

September 7, 2011 7:45 am

Robert Wille says:
September 7, 2011 at 5:58 am
If the process is patented, she would be listed as inventor, but probably would not hold the patent.
Right, typically, the patent would be assigned to the university, and licensed out to industry by its Tech Transfer Office. Not saying that’s the case here, but that would the norm.
Interesting work.

Doug Proctor
September 7, 2011 8:26 am

When they say “remove” uranium, I wonder what they mean. Perhaps “remove” from water by stabilizing the uranium/changing it into an oxide that holds onto shales.
In a reducing environment, uranium naturally falls out of solution. The bacterial action create a reducing environment that has created the “roll-front” uranium deposits of New Mexico. Fossil logs have become concentrated radioactive “ores” in places. It’s the bacterial action at the base.
But you still have to get the uranium “out”, if you are talking about removing it. Probably not, it is too diluted. Just get it stabilized and not in the water system.

Nuke Nemesis
September 7, 2011 9:14 am

Bacteria which produce electricity. Does it qualify as a biofuel, or is that only for when we convert food crops into fuel?

September 7, 2011 9:40 am

Now we need a way to extract the bacteria and reprocess the concentrated Uranium for fuel use.
This could then be a novel method of metal mining and initial ore separation processing. If different strains of the bacters could be “tuned” to different elements like gold or iron or copper… then specific bacters could be injected into holes in the ground where known metal deposits reside, allowed to attract the metal of interest then extract the bacters and remove the concentrated metals. They could even do part of the refining process since the bacters are selecting out the metal an atom at a time, thus removing the other impurities. Separating the metal from the bacters’ biological material could prove to be the environmental sticking point as it would likely involve some of the same processes that environmentalist already are upset with the gold and silver refining industry over.
I hope they figure this out. It could avert disasters like occurred in the Chilean Copper Mine last year. Send the bacteria down the hole and you won’t need to worry about the tunnels collapsing.

John T
September 7, 2011 10:57 am

“How is it that a researcher, doing work on the public dime, can patent her results? Aren’t her results the property of the public? Well, they should be.”
Depending on who funded it, she’ll be the “inventor” but the funding agency will be the patent holder. In many cases, the funding agency (DOD, NIH,…), the University and the scientist will split any proceeds, with the funding agency getting the biggest slice, the University the next biggest slice and the scientist a small slice.

Scott Covert
September 7, 2011 11:16 am

It sounds like the bacteria “electroplate” the water soluable oxides, chlorides etc… and produce metallic Uranium that won’t leech into the water table. It doesn’t remove the Uranium, it just changes it to the more stable metallic form. It shouldn’t affect the radiation (or radon) production I assume.
It’s not really ‘cleaning up’ the Uranium, it is preventing it from dissapating. For low level sources, this seems worse than letting the Uranium oxides dissapate and become less concentrated. For high level waste, it makes sence.
If you harvest the electricity, the electroplating process would stop and the wastes would not be stabilized. Also, there is no such thing as free energy, where does the energy come from to generate the electricity? Not likely in the process of converting Uranium compounds into metallic Uranium.
I don’t know, this sounds like a free energy scam.

September 7, 2011 11:25 am

Wait a minute. Wasn’t this a plot to an early 60’s Japanese Monster movie?

Brian H
September 7, 2011 12:06 pm

Your technical knowledge is as spotty as your spelling. “Fixing” the U is extremely helpful, and makes recovery easy.
And :
The energy comes from metabolizing (e.g.) acetate, as specified. Look up “reduction” and “oxidation” for a clue.

September 7, 2011 12:29 pm

this is good work on a real world problem … even if it never reaches a commercial application it has value …
this was and is money much better spent than any funds used for “AGW climate research” …

September 7, 2011 6:36 pm

most of the tonnage of radioactive waste is supposedly hot, coveralls, hot clothes lockers, low level radioactive water……
i can see bacteria eating up organic based stuff but how is it going to swallow a glowing crescent wrench without getting heart burn.
remember the nukehandlers pledge: If it glows in the dark, don’t f^&* with it.

September 7, 2011 6:56 pm

My thought too, Crito.
They eat the uranium. The radioactivity makes them mutate and grow to monstrous size, and then they ravage Tokyo and kill millions by blasting electricity at them. Prof Tanaka’s beautiful daughter survives, though her clothes are in shreds.

Some Guy
September 7, 2011 7:04 pm

The process of rendering radioactive contamination immobile is called fixing. Fixed contamination is not easily removable.
Uranium contamination (natural uranium, that is), however, isn’t highly radioactive, it’s more chemically toxic (heavy metal toxicity) than radioactively toxic. We really don’t have much escaped-into-the-wild transuranic (plutonium, neptunium, americium, curium, etc…) contamination to worry about (unless those tank farms at Hanford and Savannah River break down before they are cleaned up).

September 7, 2011 7:52 pm

It’s “Rock-Fuel”
And everyone said the Stone Age was so yesterday and evil. LOL
I welcome the gods bearing energy bearing rocks

%d bloggers like this: