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Study determines protein structure of bacterial nanowire

15 Nov 2013

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Researchers at the U.S. Department of Energy's Pacific Northwest National Laboratory have obtained the atomic resolution structure of a protein that makes up the electrical wires found in certain bacteria. To determine this structure, structural biologist Patrick Reardon and nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) scientist Karl Mueller examined a class of fibrous proteins called pilin from the Geobacter sulfurreducens species of electrically conducting bacteria. The findings, published in the Journal of Biological Chemistry, may have significant implications for energy, environment and technology.

"This is the first atomic resolution structure of this protein from an electrically conductive bacterial species, and it sets the foundation for understanding how these nanowires work," said Reardon. "How to get electrons from the inside of bacteria to the outside is important for many different things, such as bacterial fuel cells, how carbon cycles through the environment and how to make new nanomaterials for applications like biocomputers."

Previous research showed that Geobacter's pilin, PilA, required certain spots along its length known as aromatic residues to conduct electricity. The researchers sought to determine the shape of the pilin to understand where the aromatic residues landed in space or how they contributed to electron shuttling. Using nuclear magnetic resonance, the team found that on its own, PilA looked like a long skinny spring, with a slight kink about halfway up. The aromatic residues, which are bulky by nature, bulge along its length.

To find out more about conduction in the pilin, Reardon borrowed the computer image of an assembled fibre from the bacteria that cause gonorrhea, which does not conduct electricity but whose pilin has a similar shape to PilA. Reardon overlaid PilA on its Gonorrhea cousins to make the aromatic residues stand out.

Reardon and Mueller next plan to purify the whole fibre from Geobacter microbes to deciper its complete structure, which involves growing the fibre within the bacteria themselves.

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