Episode Summary

Copper electrodes, rather than killing bacteria in microbial fuel cells, allow them to generate higher densities of electric current!

Microbe of the episode

Microbe of the episode: Xipapillomavirus 2

Jesse's takeaways

Copper is widely used as a way to make surfaces and materials antimicrobial, to cut down on the spread of pathogens in hospitals and other environments. Among other mechanisms, it reacts with oxygen to form reactive oxygen species that are very harsh on microbial proteins. But copper is also a good electrical conductor, which would be useful to use in microbial fuel cells, which exploit bacterial metabolism to generate electricity. Microbes form biofilms on an electrode and transfer electrons to it as a way for them to generate energy. Most such fuel cells have used graphite electrodes to avoid toxicity.
In this study, fuel cell bacteria grew well on a copper electrode in an oxygen-free environment. The copper actually allowed them to increase the amount of current they produced per unit of area, as ionic copper diffused through the biofilm and allowed electrons to flow through the biofilm to the electrode from layers farther from the electrode that otherwise would not have access. Even graphite electrodes could be improved by adding these copper ions to the biofilm directly.


Microbes with mettle build their own electrical ‘wires’

Journal Paper

Beuth L, Pfeiffer CP, Schröder U. 2020. Copper-bottomed: electrochemically active bacteria exploit conductive sulphide networks for enhanced electrogeneity. Energy Environ Sci 13:3102–3109.

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BacterioFiles episode thumbnail featuring T4 bacteriophage