Some types of chemotrophic organisms that munch on the noxious chemicals that spew from the ocean floor have been found to function like batteries. The incredible microbes may even one day be used to power deep-sea research stations or scientific sensors.
"The amount of power produced by these microbes is rather modest," said Harvard biologist Peter Girguis, who presented the research. "But you could technically produce power in perpetuity."
Girguis and colleagues were able to measure an electric current produced by the microbes after implanting an electrode in the side of one of the underwater "chimneys" that the creatures call home.
To better understand how and why the organisms produce electricity, researchers built an artificial chimney in the lab filled with dissolved hydrogen sulfide, a chemical that smells rotten to humans but which the organisms call lunch. The microbes were then grown on a piece of pyrite, a metallic mineral commonly found in natural chimneys that also helps to conduct the electric current.
The microbes produced a stronger current the more food they consumed. Girguis believes that the process allows the microbes to make contact with oxygen from the seawater outside of the chimney. In other words, the generation of the electrical current is essentially what allows the organisms to "breathe."
"This changes the way we think about metabolism at vents," he said.