Campus Events

The joys and impacts of “accidental science” - Discovery of the electric bacteria

  • October 24, 2019
  • 4:30pm - 6:00pm
  • UWM Union Wisconsin Room, 2200 East Kenwood Blvd., Milwaukee, WI, 53211, United States
  • Letters & Science

In the summer of 1987 on Oneida Lake in upstate New York, a group of students and faculty (led by Ken Nealson and Lynn Margulis) at the Cornell Field Station discovered a geochemical enigma: metal oxides were disappearing (dissolving) in the sediments of the lake. Their observation led to the discovery of a group of bacteria that were doing something that, according to the paradigms of the day, “they shouldn’t be capable of doing”: donating electrons to solid metal oxides.
This discovery, and the studies that followed, led to a new view of microbial metabolism. Scientists learned that bacteria could not only donate electrons to metal electrodes to convert chemical energy directly into electricity, but bacteria could also grow using electricity as their only energy source. These revelations were never anticipated and are still missing from today’s microbiology text books!
Join us to hear Dr. Nealson talk about these fascinating discoveries and the potential impact of these microbes – impacts that would never have been believed before that day at the lake in 1987.
Dr. Ken Nealson is the Wrigley Chair in Environmental Studies and Professor of Earth Sciences and Biological Sciences at the University of Southern California.
His research areas include: the biogeochemistry of manganese and iron, wherein he has studied bacteria that oxidize and reduce metals in marine and freshwater environments and the relationship of these processes to other anaerobic processes in sediments. Currently, he is studying the molecular structure of this metal metabolism, including the distribution and activity of S. putrefaciens, the enzymes involved in reductive processes, to comparative gene studies of reductases involved in anaerobic metabolism.
He has also been involved in research related to astrobiology during his time at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL). While there, his group developed search strategies for life detection using samples from Mars and samples from Earth that made the trip from Earth to Mars and back again. He particularly enjoyed the interdisciplinary nature of the group which included chemists, physicists, mathematicians, and engineers, and biologists. Knowledge from his JPL work has helped with his recent work investigating extreme environments on Earth such as Mono Lake, Calif., (high pH and salinity), deep subsurface environments (deep sea drilling cores), the Antarctic and Siberian permafrost, and hot and cold deserts.
He is also involved with the Odyssey Mission to Mars, focusing on the search for water and specific mineral types on the surface of Mars.
Finally, his lab has been working on the development and testing of microbial fuel cells (MFCs), both a potential source of energy and a tool for better waste disposal.
He holds a bachelors degree in biochemistry and a PhD in microbiology, both from the University of Chicago.

Event Website