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Daniel Bond gets a charge out of microbes

If you looked at the jars and bottles of murky, green and brown-tinted water and sediment in Daniel Bond’s laboratory refrigerator, you’d never guess the magic that may come from their contents. In fact, you might tell Bond, an assistant professor in the Department of Microbiology and the Biotechnology Institute, that it’s time to clean out the refrigerator.

Yet, these bottles contain the miraculous microbe Geobacter sulfurreducens, a microorganism widely found in the sediment beneath bodies of water, at the bottom of a pond or the ocean, for example. Geobacter offers tremendous potential for two things: the creation of electrical current and bioremediation of polluted environments. That’s because it possesses an extraordinary ability to transport electrons and reduce metal ions in a chemical process through which it adds electrons to the ions.

The flow of electrons from the bacterium to a metal, or to an electrode, is the same as when electrons flow from one pole to the other in a battery, thus creating an electrical current. In the process, the organism breaks down organic molecules in the sediment, including many that are introduced by accident (e.g., fuel spills). Some metals, such as uranium, become less soluble when reduced by Geobacterand precipitate into solids, which are easier to remove from the site.

Bond arrived at the University of Minnesota in July from the University of Massachusetts- Amherst where, as a post-doc, he was part of the groundbreaking discovery of how Geobacter produces electricity. Now, in CBS’s Gortner laboratories, he is ramping up his new lab to study how to more efficiently harness these organisms to create electricity. “So far we can do tricks, like make a light bulb burn or run a toy robot,” he says, “but we can’t put it to larger use. We need a way to get more power.”

Many of the answers to the problem lie in the fields of engineering, bio-sensing, and bio-catalysis rather than in microbiology. That’s why he’s delighted to be involved with the Biotechnology Institute where he can easily tap the resources and expertise of those disciplines. He’s also searching for other organisms that, like Geobacter, serve as tiny electrical generators.

Bond’s “current pursuits” belie his earlier academic interest: He began his education with a musical bent, attending high school at the prestigious Interlochen Arts Academy in Traverse City, Michigan, where he studied piano. Still, the scientific mindset is a family affair. He grew up in Midland, Michigan, where his parents worked in the chemistry and computer fields for Dow Chemical and Dow Corning. He’s passing that tradition of scientific thinking on to his three-year-old daughter, Lola, and admits he tries to describe for her what’s going on in the compost pile.

“I chose microbiology because it has all of biology in a one-micron package. It’s like alchemy. Bacteria are where the magic is.

“Imagine making electricity from mud,” he says. “There’s always something even more fantastic on the horizon.”

— Terri Peterson Smith