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Identifying the mechanism of bacterial extracellular electron transfer via conductive pili proteins

EMSL Project ID


Microbial metabolism plays an important role in the global cycling of carbon, nutrients, and metals. Recent discovery of microorganisms sharing energy using direct electrical connections might represent a prominent strategy by which anaerobic microorganisms interact with the diversity of environments. The purpose of the proposed research is to apply these newly developed principles of electron exchange in microbial communities to the study of biogeochemical cycling in climate and subsurface systems. Previous studies revealed that soil bacteria Geobacter sulfurreducens produce conductive pili nanofilaments that facilitate long-range electron transport to extracellular electron acceptors and other cells. This discovery has already transformed our understanding of the function of microbial communities in diverse environments, making basic contributions to microbial ecology and helping to improve practical applications such as increasing current output of microbial fuel cells and enhancing the conversion of organic waste to methane. Microbial electron exchange via pili may also contribute to methane production in terrestrial environments that are major sources of atmospheric methane. However, the mechanism of electron transport through pili is not well understood. Initial studies have suggested that pili exhibit metallic-like conductivity similar to conducting polymer polyaniline. However, these studies were limited to electrical measurements. X-ray diffraction studies have suggested that aromatic amino acids tyrosine and phenylalanine are closely packed in pili. But these studies used homology modeling to predict the pilus assembly and information about the number of monomers in each pilus assembly unit and their organization are still lacking. The central hypothesis of this proposal is aromatics in pili enable intermolecular electron delocalization due to pi-stacking that can give rise to metallic-like conductivity. By analyzing pili structure using infrared scattering-scanning near field optical microscope (IR s-SNOM) and combining with solution NMR, Focused Ion Beam (FIB and computational capabilities, this work will provide comprehensive understanding of the conduction mechanism from a structure-function perspective. The specific aims are: 1) With infrared scattering scanning near field optical microscope (IR s-SNOM), image the organization and density of pilin monomers and pH-induced conformational changes in a pilus filament. 2) With solution NMR, resolve pH-induced structural changes in the pilin monomer. 3) Using Focused Ion Beam (FIB), draw electrodes on single pili to measure their conductivity. 4) With computational modeling using the NWChem, simulate the effect of environment on the electronic properties of pili as a function of pH. The proposed work will gain the nanoscale insight into the structure of the pili, as the basis for understanding interspecies electrical communications. The improved understanding will be harnessed to accelerate bioenergy production and bioremediation using pili as well as for predictive modeling of carbon cycling in diverse environments to reach the central goals of DOE-BER to develop sustainable energy sources, regulate the contaminants in the subsurface and understand the effects of greenhouse gas emissions on biosphere. The proposed studies will provide design principles for engineering of electrical interactions among these communities by manipulating the amino acid composition of pili. Moreover, these studies will identify the forces that maintain the function of these communities in the face of environmental perturbation. Therefore, these studies will help to address the need "to incorporate process understanding of biogeochemical cycling into a scalable hierarchy of predictive capabilities" specified in EMSL's Science Themes.

Project Details

Project type
Exploratory Research
Start Date
End Date


Principal Investigator

Nikhil Malvankar
Yale University

Team Members

Patrick Reardon
Oregon State University

Amity Andersen
Environmental Molecular Sciences Laboratory

Niranjan Govind
Pacific Northwest National Laboratory

Karol Kowalski
Pacific Northwest National Laboratory

Marat Valiev
Environmental Molecular Sciences Laboratory