Powering microbes with electricity: direct electron transfer from electrodes to microbes


E-mail dlovley@microbio.umass.edu; Tel. (+1) 413 545 9651; Fax (+1) 413 545 1576.


The discovery of electrotrophs, microorganisms that can directly accept electrons from electrodes for the reduction of terminal electron acceptors, has spurred the investigation of a wide range of potential applications. To date, only a handful of pure cultures have been shown to be capable of electrotrophy, but this process has also been inferred in many studies with undefined consortia. Potential electron acceptors include: carbon dioxide, nitrate, metals, chlorinated compounds, organic acids, protons and oxygen. Direct electron transfer from electrodes to cells has many advantages over indirect electrical stimulation of microbial metabolism via electron shuttles or hydrogen production. Supplying electrons with electrodes for the bioremediation of chlorinated compounds, nitrate or toxic metals may be preferable to adding organic electron donors or hydrogen to the subsurface or bioreactors. The most transformative application of electrotrophy may be microbial electrosynthesis in which carbon dioxide and water are converted to multi-carbon organic compounds that are released extracellularly. Coupling photovoltaic technology with microbial electrosynthesis represents a novel photosynthesis strategy that avoids many of the drawbacks of biomass-based strategies for the production of transportation fuels and other organic chemicals. The mechanisms for direct electron transfer from electrodes to microorganisms warrant further investigation in order to optimize envisioned applications.