By Kevin Kelleher
September 14, 2018

Diarrhea-causing bacteria found in the human gastrointestinal tract is capable of generating an electric current, a new study found.

A bio-electrochemical process known as extracellular electron transfer, or EET, in Listeria monocytogenes generates the bacterial electricity, researchers from the University of California at Berkeley said in a study published in Nature. That bacteria is a common a food-borne pathogen that causes listeria, an infection that can lead to severe illnesses such as sepsis and encephalitis in people with compromised immune systems.

Other bacteria can generate electric currents, including bacteria that cause gangrene or streptococcus, as well as the Lactobacilli used in fermenting yogurt, a blog post about the study on U.C. Berkeley’s web site said. The EET process of electrogenesis process found in L. monocytogenes is different, in that it’s simpler, which one Berkeley researcher said “makes it significantly easier and more cost-effective to transfer electrons out of the cell.”

Some bacteria generate electric currents to remove electrons produced during metabolism—the bacteria equivalent of humans breathing oxygen. The newly discovered process involves bacteria with a single-cell wall, allowing the listeria-causing bacteria to easily transport electrons through their cell wall and into its external environment as tiny currents.

“The fact that so many bugs that interact with humans, either as pathogens or in probiotics or in our microbiota or involved in fermentation of human products, are electrogenic — that had been missed before,” said Dan Portnoy, a UC Berkeley professor who helped lead the study. “It could tell us a lot about how these bacteria infect us or help us have a healthy gut.”

The insight is useful beyond the knowledge that there may be tiny electrical storms inside your belly. In addition to the benefits it may bring to promoting digestive health, the study’s findings could help in the development of bioenergetic technologies, like so-called living batteries, that could bring about clean energy generated from bacteria in waste-treatment plants.

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