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This page was published on 17/08/2004
Published: 17/08/2004

   Energy

Published: 17 August 2004  
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Health & life sciences  |  Energy  |  Industrial research  |  Research policy  |  Pure sciences

 

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The biologist's Holy Grail

Taking their lead from recent discoveries that biofilms on surfaces are electrochemically charged, EU scientists are out to find the most electrically active of these micro-organisms so they may one day create new scientific and technological applications.

Metal corrosion – a chemical reaction between a metal surface and its environment – is a curse to industry worldwide © Image: Web sources
Metal corrosion – a chemical reaction between a metal surface and its environment – is a curse to industry worldwide
© Image: Web sources
Chance discoveries that biofilms of micro-organisms, such as rust and mould, can be electrochemically active open a world of opportunity not only in preventing the damage they can cause but also in developing new products and processes using this unusual energy. But before this can be done, scientists must either learn which organisms conduct electricity the best and/or genetically engineer microbes to do the job.

A multidisciplinary team of researchers from Belgium, France, Germany, Italy and Portugal – backed by EU funding under the NEST Adventure programme – want nature's own biodiversity to show them the way. The two-year project will screen for a range of media, such as aerobic and anaerobic seawaters, fresh water, nitrate-rich and industrially polluted soils, sludge and mangroves, to identify those micro-organisms which form electrochemically-active biofilms (EABs).  

If they are successful, the project called EA-Biofilms will be able to exploit this naturally occurring phenomenon in a number of scientific fields, including bio-energy, bio-remediation and corrosion mitigation, chemical/biological synthesis and bio-sensors. The discovery of EABs has shown what is possible but it is the scientists' job to show how it should be done. 

New look at an old foe
The fact is most micro-organisms growing in the natural environment form biofilms on solid surfaces, such as metals, plastics and ceramics, according to a forthcoming EU publication called ‘Bacterial power'. But the positive effects of these films have, until recently, been overshadowed by the harm that they can do to human health through infection and to industrial materials through, for example, corrosion and biodegradation.

Corrosion is a major problem around the world but hits developing countries particularly hard, costing them around 4% of GNP annually, according to the EU publication. The causes of corrosion are not well understood. Better knowledge of EABs, it is hoped, will give scientists the vital clues on how to tame this rampant problem and, at the same time, uncover new ways to tap into its mysterious biochemical power.

The biologist's Grail would be to create new fuel cell technology by unlocking and harnessing the energy in glucose, lactates, acetates, or hydrocarbons. Other possible uses for EABs and areas for further research by EA Biofilms, the brochure explains, include new synthesis routes in biotechnology and food production, novel implantable power sources, new therapeutics and, ironically enough, new strategies for protecting materials against biofilm formation in the first place.

NEST project sheets

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New and emerging science and technology (NEST)
NEST creativity: first crop of EU visionary research projects (11 February 2004)

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