Microorganism

Germs power new paper batteries

paper battery
paper battery

Engineers in upstate New York have invented a folded paper device that looks like a decorated art project. But don’t be fooled. This is actually a paper-based battery. No, it doesn’t look like any of those metal batteries running flashlights or smartphones. This alternative to electronics is based on paper. It represents a step forward in the field of papertronics (short for paper electronics). In these systems, the battery can be printed on a page. Well, most of it can: The battery’s power consists of living bacteria.

Paper electronics are simple to make and inexpensive, notes study leader Seokheun Choi. He’s an enginee at Binghamton University, part of the State University of New York system. These batteries also would be flexible and disposable, he adds. And powered by germs, they need no electrical outlet to recharge. They just need more bacteria, which can be found everywhere — including in dirty water.

Most batteries use chemicals to generate electricity. Substituting bacteria can be an advantage, Choi says. “They are cheap, self-repairing and self-maintained,” he notes. What paper-based batteries won’t do is generate much power. They do, however, create enough to run small devices in faraway or dangerous places — such as a battlefield. They might also find use in medicine. For instance, they might power tiny sensors, such as the types used to measure blood sugar.

Choi and Yang Gao, also at Binghamton, describe their new invention in the January 2017 issue of Advanced Materials Technology.

Such devices are based on an observation made more than a century ago — that microbes produce a trickle of electricity as they digest food. Scientists refer to the bio-batteries based on this principle as microbial fuel cells.

A fuel cell generates electricity like a regular battery. But a regular battery stops producing electricity when its internal…

Oldest microfossils suggest life thrived on Earth about 4 billion years ago

hematite
SIGNS OF LIFE In rocks left over from ancient hydrothermal vents, these microscopic tubes of hematite, an ore of iron, may be remnants of early microbes.

Tiny, iron-rich fossils exhumed from the depths of an ancient ocean could reveal the cradle of life.

These micrometer-scale structures are probably remnants of microorganisms that once lived amidst ancient hydrothermal vents, researchers suggest March 1 in Nature.

“In a nutshell, what we’ve found are the oldest microfossils on Earth,” says study coauthor Matthew Dodd, a biogeochemist at University College London. The rocks that hold the fossils came from Quebec and date to somewhere between 4.28 billion and 3.77 billion years old — when Earth was still a baby. The next oldest microfossils reported are just under 3.5 billion years old, though their validity has been debated (SN: 2/8/14, p.16).

If Dodd’s structures truly are remnants of microbes, “it’s fantastic. I love it,” says astrobiologist Martin Van Kranendonk of the University of New South Wales in Sydney. But he’s not convinced. In fact, he says, “there’s just not definitive proof that any of the textures or the minerals or features they have is unique of life.”

Claims of early life are frequently fraught with controversy. For one, says Dodd, “these are big claims — these are our origins.” And scientists studying early life typically don’t have a lot to work with. It’s not like they’re looking at dinosaur bones. In billions-of-years-old microbes, obvious cellular bits and other familiar flags of life have often been stripped away. And in Earth’s oldest rocks, extreme heat and pressure can cook and squash any remnants of life…

Giant cave crystals may be home to 50,000-year-old microbes

cave microbes and crystals
cave microbes and crystals

Microbes were found in the fluid pockets of enormous crystals within Mexico’s Naica mine. The germs may have been trapped in these minerals for up to 50,000 years.

BOSTON, Mass. — Scientists have turned up truly ancient microbes. They extracted them from giant cave crystals in Mexico. The stowaways may have survived there, unseen, for tens of thousands of years, new data indicate. Vastly different from nearly all other life-forms known, these germs offer a good indication of how resilient life can be in extremely harsh environments — even, potentially, conditions on other worlds.

“These organisms are so extraordinary,” says Penelope Boston. She is the director of NASA’s Astrobiology Institute in Moffett Field, Calif.

Boston spoke here during a February 17 news conference at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. The microbes she described are not closely related to any known genus, she said. Some of their closest relatives live in caves halfway around the world. Others make their homes in volcanic soils or thrive on toxic chemicals, such as toluene (TAHL-you-een).

Full of lead, silver and zinc, the Naica Mine is in Chihuahua, Mexico. For eight years, Boston was part of a team probing microbes there. The crystal stowaways they turned up had been in fluid pockets inside massive crystals of calcium sulfate.

One might think of these microbes as having been tucked away…

Microbes survived inside giant cave crystals for up to 50,000 years

Naica mine in Chihuahua, Mexico
Samples from fluid pockets in crystals inside Mexico’s Naica mine in Chihuahua revealed life-forms that may have been trapped in the minerals for up to 50,000 years.

IN DEEP

BOSTON — Microbes found stowed inside giant crystals in caves in Chihuahua, Mexico, may have survived there for tens of thousands of years. The microorganisms, which appear to be vastly different from nearly all life-forms found on Earth, offer a good indication of how resilient life can be in extremely harsh environments, including those found on other planets.

“These organisms are so extraordinary,” astrobiologist Penelope Boston said February 17 during a news conference at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. They are not close to any known genus scientists have been able to identify, said Boston, director of the NASA Astrobiology Institute in Moffett Field, Calif. Their closest relatives live in caves halfway around the world or in volcanic soils or thrive on compounds such as toluene.

For eight years, Boston and her colleagues have been studying microbes deep inside the Naica lead, silver and zinc mine. Some microorganisms were discovered trapped in fluid pockets inside massive crystals of calcium sulfate. Analysis suggests that the microbes may have been tucked away in these tiny time capsules for…

Common fungus may raise asthma risk

Pichia fungus
NOT SO FUN The fungus Pichia (shown), a type of yeast, is linked to kids’ likelihood of developing asthma, new research shows.

BOSTON — A fungus among us may tip the body toward developing asthma.

There’s mounting evidence that early exposure to microbes can protect against allergies and asthma (SN Online: 7/20/16). But “lo and behold, some fungi seem to put kids at risk for asthma,” microbiologist Brett Finlay said February 17 at a news conference during the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Infants whose guts harbored a particular kind of fungus — a yeast called Pichia — were more likely to develop asthma than babies whose guts didn’t have the fungus, Finlay reported. Studies in mice and people suggest that exposure to some fungi can both trigger and exacerbate asthma, but this is the first work linking asthma to a fungus in the gut microbiome of infants.

Finlay, of the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, and his colleagues had recently identified four gut bacteria in Canadian infants that seem to provide asthma protection. To see if infants elsewhere were similarly protected by such gut microbes, he…

Microbe Transmission Tracked from Mother to Infant

There’s strong evidence that babies inherit their gut microbiomes from their mothers, but it’s been unclear if the microbiome transmission takes place in the womb, at birth, or after birth; there are likely multiple paths of transmission unfolding over time. Microbial diversity is crucial to building up many functions, including the immune system, digestion, and even combating complex diseases. Recent research has found a connection between our gut microbiomes and our mental health as well.

However, studying the direct transmission of these microbes and identifying the strains of bacteria has been difficult until recently. Now researchers at the Centre for Integrative Biology at the University of Trento (UoT), Italy, have developed methods to track this microbial “vertical transmission,” as it’s called, and made some new discoveries in their methodological study, published in mSystems, an open access journal from the American Society for Microbiology.

“We know the infant increases [its] microbial diversity after birth and will continue doing so until being an adult,” senior study author Nicola Segata, an assistant professor at UoT, tells mental_floss. “We needed to understand from where microbes are coming in the first place.”

Many microbes are likely transmitted from mother to infant at birth and just after birth through direct contact with the birth…

Innovated Recycling Appliance Turns Scraps of Food Into Fertilizer

A new kitchen appliance aims to turn food waste into “black gold” with the touch of a button. As Curbed reports, the Zera Food Recycler is an automated composter that, according to its designers, can turn food scraps into fresh fertilizer in just 24 hours.

Traditionally, the composting process takes weeks—if not months—to complete as microorganisms turn organic material into rich fertilizer (what gardeners call “black gold”). It’s also a somewhat taxing activity because in order to provide oxygen to the microorganisms responsible for the decomposition,…