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How do bacteria act with built-in electrical wires?

Six years after the sensational discovery of cable bacteria, the Danish National Research Foundation is now awarding a grant of up to DKK 56 million to the Centre for Electromicrobiology at Aarhus University.

2017.04.20 | Peter F. Gammelby

The new basic research centre is directed by Professor Lars Peter Nielsen, and will reveal more secrets of the electrical bacteria. Photo: Peter F. Gammelby, Aarhus University

They are called cable bacteria, and the name is perfectly fitting. They are long, and electrical wires run through them. In contrast to electrical cables, however, the bacteria use the wires to breathe.

This is practical for bacteria like these, living in the sea bed where there is often a great distance between oxygen and nutrition. When you dig down into the sediment, there is no oxygen after a few millimetres. At a depth of a few centimetres, there is thus plenty of nutrition, but no oxygen at all.

The cable bacteria solve the problem by ‘stretching’, so one end reaches down to the nutrients while the other end remains in the upper part of the sea bed, where there is oxygen. The electrical wires running from one end of the cable bacteria’s long chain of cells to the other are thereby used as an electrical ‘snorkel’.

“Just like every single one of our cells, the cable bacteria metabolise nutrition by transferring electrons to oxygen, thereby getting energy. Thanks to their wires, however, the bacteria can do this through several thousand cells, covering distances of several centimetres,” explains Professor Lars Peter Nielsen, who will be the director of the Centre for Electromicrobiology (CEM) – a new basic research centre at Aarhus University.

Discovery raises new questions

It is more than six years since Professor Nielsen and his group discovered cable bacteria in the Port of Aarhus. Nobody had imagined that such a life form existed, and the discovery is described internationally as a fundamental breakthrough in electromicrobiology.

During his career, Professor Nielsen has several times demonstrated the ability to think in new directions cutting across disciplines, and to convert this to a new understanding of nature and practical solutions.

The discovery of cable bacteria opens up for a number of new and promising basic research questions, and CEM will find answers to these during the next six years. There are questions such as:

  • How can a living biological structure act as an effective electrical wire? Nobody has a clue as yet, and the answer will undoubtedly be sensational and possibly technologically interesting.
  • How do the cable bacteria distribute energy between the cells, and how do they use the energy? In an organism where the metabolism of nutrients and oxygen is divided between electrically connected cells, biological energy management can be investigated in completely new ways.
  • How are other organisms involved? Cable bacteria presumably make up the core of previously unknown electrical ecosystems, where many other microorganisms make use of the cable bacteria’s smart short cut to oxygen.

Participating at the centre are

Associate Professor Thomas Boesen, iNANO and Department of Molecular Biology and Genetics, Aarhus University
Associate Professor Elena Ferapontova, iNANO, Aarhus University
Associate Professor Filip Meysman, AIAS Fellow, Aarhus Institute of Advanced Studies, Aarhus University
Associate Professor Nils Risgaard-Petersen, Department of Bioscience, Aarhus University
Professor Andreas Schramm, Department of Bioscience, Aarhus University





For more information, go to the

Danish National Research Foundation’s website

or contact

Professor Lars Peter Nielsen
Department of Bioscience – Microbiology, Aarhus University
+45 6020 2654


Director Søren-Peter Olesen
Danish National Research Foundation
+45 2028 9706


DNRF Chair, Professor Liselotte Højgaard
Danish National Research Foundation
+45 2753 8688

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