Cable bacteria overcome a lack of oxygen

Saturday, September 12th, 2020

For Lars Peter Nielsen, it all began with the mysterious disappearance of hydrogen sulfide.

The microbiologist had collected black, stinky mud from the bottom of Aarhus Harbor in Denmark, dropped it into big glass beakers, and inserted custom microsensors that detected changes in the mud’s chemistry. At the start of the experiment, the muck was saturated with hydrogen sulfide—the source of the sediment’s stink and color. But 30 days later, one band of mud had become paler, suggesting some hydrogen sulphide had gone missing. Eventually, the microsensors indicated that all of the compound had disappeared. Given what scientists knew about the biogeochemistry of mud, recalls Nielsen, who works at Aarhus University, “This didn’t make sense at all.”

The first explanation, he says, was that the sensors were wrong. But the cause turned out to be far stranger: bacteria that join cells end to end to build electrical cables able to carry current up to 5 centimeters through mud. The adaptation, never seen before in a microbe, allows these so-called cable bacteria to overcome a major challenge facing many organisms that live in mud: a lack of oxygen. Its absence would normally keep bacteria from metabolizing compounds, such as hydrogen sulfide, as food. But the cables, by linking the microbes to sediments richer in oxygen, allow them to carry out the reaction long distance.


Most cells thrive by robbing electrons from one molecule, a process called oxidation, and donating them to another molecule, usually oxygen—so-called reduction. Energy harvested from these reactions drives the other processes of life. In eukaryotic cells, including our own, such “redox” reactions take place on the inner membrane of the mitochondria, and the distances involved are tiny—just micrometers. That is why so many researchers were skeptical of Nielsen’s claim that cable bacteria were moving electrons across a span of mud equivalent to the width of a golf ball.

The vanishing hydrogen sulfide was key to proving it. Bacteria produce the compound in mud by breaking down plant debris and other organic material; in deeper sediments, hydrogen sulfide builds up because there is little oxygen to help other bacteria break it down. Yet, in Nielsen’s laboratory beakers, the hydrogen sulfide was disappearing anyway. Moreover, a rusty hue appeared on the mud’s surface, indicating that an iron oxide had formed.

(Hat tip to Hans G. Schantz.)

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