Scientists Engineer Glowing 'Bionic Mushrooms' That Can Produce Electricity With Bacteria

Thursday, 08 November 2018 - 12:50PM
Technology
Thursday, 08 November 2018 - 12:50PM
Scientists Engineer Glowing 'Bionic Mushrooms' That Can Produce Electricity With Bacteria
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Adapted from Alexey Sergeev - CC BY-SA 3.0
We're entering a new era of alternative energy, one where scientists find new sources of power in unlikely places – like liquid sunlight or human urine. However, the newest discovery – nicknamed "bionic mushrooms" – sounds more like something sold on the California black market than an energy solution. In truth, the name is a little misleading: the key to the energy production isn't the mushroom itself: it's the photosynthesizing cyanobacteria being 3D-printed onto its cap.

Certain kinds of cyanobacteria have the ability to produce electricity during their natural photosynthesis process, but one of the major challenges for harnessing these microbes has been their inability to survive on artificial surfaces. The solution came when scientists from the Stevens Institute of Technology ordered some mushrooms for lunch. "As we discussed them," said Sudeep Joshi, the author of the new study, "we realised they have a rich microbiota of their own, so we thought why not use the mushrooms as a support for the cyanobacteria. We thought let's merge them and see what happens."

By printing the bacteria in spiral patterns on the tops of the humble button mushrooms (along with graphene ribbons used to collect the electricity), the researchers were able to produce small amounts of current and keep the bacteria alive for significantly longer than in other experiments. Though modest, it's a proof-of-concept for larger mushroom-based energy projects: according to Joshi, "We are looking to connect all the mushrooms in series, in an array, and we are also looking to pack more bacteria together. These are the next steps, to optimise the bio-currents, to generate more electricity, to power a small LED."

Another potential advancement could be genetically modifying bacteria so that their electricity output is greater. Either way, it's an exciting discovery for scientists looking into the use of cyanobacteria as green energy sources. "It's a new start; we call it engineered symbiosis," says Joshi. "If we do more research in this we can really push this field forward to have some type of effective green technology."

Image credit: Adapted from Alexey Sergeev - CC BY-SA 3.0
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