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Extraordinary Wires Made by Ordinary Bacteria

Giving new meaning to the phrase “lightning bug,” scientists have come up with a way to get bacteria to produce infinitesimal wires capable of conducting useful amounts of electricity.

The work, by researchers at the University of Massachusetts, relies on a garden-variety bacteria to produce the wires from naturally occurring proteins. Someday, such wires might be useful anywhere that really small electronics are wanted. And unlike many electronic components today, these bacterial wires can be produced using nontoxic, sustainable materials.

The researchers used a bacteria called Geobacter that was first discovered in 1987 in the Potomac River, not far downstream from Washington, D.C. Geobacter can live on a wide range of nutrient sources and has displayed a talent for cleaning up petroleum and radioactive-metal contamination. Intriguingly, the bacteria gets energy from iron oxide in the soil, handing off electrons in the process through tiny filaments that function like electrical wires.

It is easy for scientists to grow Geobacter, but in nature, the bacteria’s tiny hairs can’t carry much current. So the University of Massachusetts...