A team from the University of Massachusetts in Amherst have discovered a new cooperative behavior in anaerobic bacteria known as “interspecies electron transfer” that they believe could be used towards changing the global carbon cycle and how we understand bioenergy. In their research, the UMass team discovered that two different species of microorganisms were able to cooperate to consume food at a faster rate than they would be able to on their own. And since consumption of such matter could lead to the production of natural gases such as methane and is an increasingly popular method for producing natural gas, the finding could be a breakthrough for the renewable energy.

The research, written by microbiologists Derek Lovley, Zarath Summers and colleagues, is published in the Dec. 2 issue of Science and coins the phrase “Great Balls of Evolution” to describe the cell aggregates that evolved in their lab. Research into microorganisms and electrons began in the 1960s, when it was first discovered that they could indirectly exchange electrons by “interspecies hydrogen transfer“. It was found that a single microbe could produce hydrogen, which another then consumed.

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Speaking of their discovery, Derek Lovely said, “We placed the microbes under conditions in which they had to work together in order to survive and grow using the alcohol we gave them as an energy source. They’re the ultimate drinking buddies, collaborating to consume ethanol.”

Zarath Summers’ investigation into hydrogen-sharing interactions led her to letting the cultures grow instead of simply shaking them and breaking them into cell clumps. She soon noticed that they had developed an intricate structure with a series of channels in order to let nutrients enter. They had also established completely new electric connections that permitted them to directly share electrons.

“The direct electron transfer is much more efficient and they consume alcohol much faster this way,” Summers said.

The team has been working with the Genomic Science Program of the U.S. Department of Energy in order to explore the practical applications of their microorganisms and developing microbes.

+ University of Massachusetts

Via E! Science News