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February 24, 2021

'Iron Man' bacteria could become economic and environmental heroes

Michigan State University researchers have shown that soil bacteria known as Geobacter are effective cobalt "miners," extracting the rare, toxic metal from rust without letting it penetrate their cells and kill them. Geobacter could form the basis of new biotechnology to reclaim and recycle cobalt from lithium-ion batteries, reducing the nation's dependence on foreign cobalt mines.

Credit: National Science Foundation/Karson Productions

(Sound effect: Metal riff) Heavy metal.

I'm Bob Karson with The Discovery Files, from NSF -- the U.S. National Science Foundation.

The use of microbes to go after industrial pollutants isn't new, but some toxic heavy metals, like cobalt, used in lithium-ion batteries, are dangerous to humans and almost always fatal to microbes. Almost, because NSF-funded research out of Michigan State University tells of a rather hardy little bacterium that's devised a way to protect itself internally from cobalt exposure by -- get this -- covering itself with cobalt!

The MSU team questioned conventional wisdom that 'once exposed to cobalt, microbes were toast'. They suspected that Geobacter, which had proven itself to be very tough in other situations, might survive a cobalt encounter. (Sound effect: birds, outdoors) This soil and sediment bacterium is so common, you might find Geobacter in your garden. Researchers found it to be highly specialized in cobalt recovery, somehow able to (Sound effect: iron man type music) slip on this suit of armor, er cobalt nanoparticles, like some kind of itty, bitty iron man.

Making it possible for Geobacter to be protected while extracting and removing cobalt from rust (Sound effect: metal clink) or groundwater (Sound effect: drip!) and reclaiming the rare, valuable material from old, used lithium-ion batteries, reducing our dependence on foreign markets.

All from a microbe going 'full metal jacket'.

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