Scientists Discover Hungry Bacteria That Can Chomp Metal

Scientists Discover Hungry Bacteria That Can Chomp Metal
Image: Getty Images/Gizmodo Australia

Bacteria, like any living organism, needs to eat, but scientists have discovered some strains are so hungry, they’ll take on metal as a snack too.

Researchers at California Institute of Technology accidentally discovered the tiny metal monsters after conducting an unrelated experiment with manganese, a metal, and publishing their findings in Nature.

Professor Jared Leadbetter, the paper’s co-author, said he had left a glass coated in manganese in his office sink before leaving to work off-site for months. When he returned, the jar was coated in a black substance.

“I thought, ‘What is that?'” Professor Leadbetter said in a media release.

“I started to wonder if long-sought-after microbes might be responsible, so we systematically performed tests to figure that out.

“These are the first bacteria found to use manganese as their source of fuel.”

The bacteria were likely to have come from the tap water and were responsible for oxidising the metal, which caused it to turn black. Upon further study, the researchers found the bacteria had also found a way to use the manganese to convert carbon dioxide into biomass — called chemosynthesis — something which had not been observed.

Manganese is one of the most abundant minerals in the world and can often be found in foods as well as water systems.

The findings mean future studies can be conducted to understand how the bacteria could be used to clean out pollutants in water systems from manganese buildup.

“There is a whole set of environmental engineering literature on drinking-water-distribution systems getting clogged by manganese oxides,” Professor Leadbetter said.

“But how and for what reason such material is generated there has remained an enigma. Clearly, many scientists have considered that bacteria using manganese for energy might be responsible, but evidence supporting this idea was not available until now.”

Let the hungry boys eat, they’re doing us good.