New Microbe Forms Living, Deep-Sea Power Cables
The world’s deep seafloors are dark and airless places, but vast swaths may pulse gently with energy conducted through a type of newly discovered bacteria that forms living electrical cables. The bacteria were first detected in 2010 by researchers perplexed at chemical fluctuations in sediments from the bottom of Aarhus Bay in Denmark. Almost instantaneously linking changing oxygen levels in water with reactions in mud nearly an inch below, the fluctuations occurred too fast to be explained by chemistry. Only an electrical signal made sense — but no known bacteria could transmit electricity across such comparatively vast distances. Were bacteria the size of humans, the signals would be making a journey 12 miles long.
Now the mysterious bacteria have been identified, described in Nature by researchers as belonging to a microbial family called Desulfobulbaceae, though they share just 92% of their genes with any previously known member of that family. They deserve to be considered a new genus, the study of which could open a new scientific frontier for understanding the interface of biology, geology and chemistry across the undersea world.