Imagine if one day the electrical wires in your cell phone were made by bacteria — and were even smaller and more conductive than today's technology.

Scientists at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst imagine just such a future of "biowires" laced throughout our devices.

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Image courtesy of the University of Massachusetts, Amherst

A research team, headed by Derek Lovley, has engineered a new strain of bacteria that creates highly conductive nanoscale wires made entirely of amino acids. This new material is non-toxic, unlike the chemical-based process we use to create nano-electronic materials today.

The beginnings of this discovery started a decade ago when Lovley and his team realized a microorganism called Geobacter produced electrically conductive proteins to help it absorb iron minerals from the soil.

These protein filaments were conductive enough for the bacteria but not for any practical manufacturing purposes. Lovley and his team discovered that they could improve on nature by swapping one type of amino acid for another.

“We knew that one class of amino acids was important for the conductivity, so we rearranged these amino acids to produce a synthetic nanowire that we thought might be more conductive,”  says Lovley.

Hoping to make the nanowires more conductive, the team genetically engineered the bacteria to replace two of the naturally occurring amino acids with tryptophan (of Thanksgiving turkey fame), which is very efficient at transporting electrons but not naturally present in the bacterial nanowires.

The result? The team was blown away.

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What they created were microfilaments that were 2,000 times more conductive and half as thick as the microfilaments Geobacter created naturally. Each nanowire is a mere 1.5 nanometers wide—60,000 times smaller than the width of human hair.

Meanwhile, their level of conductivity is already greater than other organic nanowires with similar diameters produced by chemical methods.

What's next?

Lovley and his team hope this is just the beginning. They have already produced 20 more Geobacter strains by testing various amino acid combinations. The potential applications of these wires could be huge for making our dependence on electronic devices more sustainable. The approach could also be used to create "biotransistors" and "biocapacitors." Lovley sees a use for the biowires in components of solar panels, computing devices, and biocompatible sensors.

While this breakthrough is still in its early stages, it's fascinating to consider the possibility of objects that are part biological, part mechanical. We often classify the world around us into living and nonliving entities — now,  we might be heading into a future where it will be harder to draw that line.


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Sveta writes about the intersection of biology and technology (and occasionally other things). She also enjoys long walks on the beach, being underwater and climbing rocks. You can follow her @svm118.