“Iron Man” bacteria could help clean toxic metals from the environment

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EAST LANSING, Mich. (WLNS) – A discovery by Michigan State University researchers could pave the way for bacteria to clean up sites contaminated with toxic metals.

The team, led by Prof. Gemma Reguera from the MSU Department of Microbiology and Molecular Genetics, studied Geobacter, a genus of bacteria found in soil that use metals in the ground to breathe, mainly iron oxide (rust). They wanted to see how these bacteria would handle toxic metals in the soil.

They introduced Geobacter to cobalt, an elemental metal that is toxic to living things, including bacteria. They discovered that, rather than ingesting the toxic metal, Geobacter coated themselves in tiny particles of it.

“They form cobalt nanoparticles on their surface,” Reguera told MSU Today. “They metalize themselves and it’s like a shield that protects them. It’s like Iron Man when he puts on the suit.”

The discovery could open the door for new developments, like using Geobacter to clean up areas contaminated by toxic metals or reclaiming cobalt from batteries.

In addition to helping the environment, this could reduce our dependence on foreign cobalt production. Cobalt is essential for modern high-tech devices, but the largest global producer of the metal is the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The cobalt industry there has been linked to human rights abuses, including child labor.

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