Microfluidic dielectrophoresis illuminates the relationship between microbial cell envelope polarizability and electrochemical activity

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Science Advances  11 Jan 2019:
Vol. 5, no. 1, eaat5664
DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.aat5664


Electrons can be transported from microbes to external insoluble electron acceptors (e.g., metal oxides or electrodes in an electrochemical cell). This process is known as extracellular electron transfer (EET) and has received considerable attention due to its applications in environmental remediation and energy conversion. However, the paucity of rapid and noninvasive phenotyping techniques hinders a detailed understanding of microbial EET mechanisms. Most EET phenotyping techniques assess microorganisms based on their metabolism and growth in various conditions and/or performance in electrochemical systems, which requires large sample volumes and cumbersome experimentation. Here, we use microfluidic dielectrophoresis to show a strong correlation between bacterial EET and surface polarizability. We analyzed surface polarizabilities for wild-type strains and cytochrome-deletion mutants of two model EET microbes, Geobacter sulfurreducens and Shewanella oneidensis, and for Escherichia coli strains heterologously expressing S. oneidensis EET pathways in various growth conditions. Dielectrophoretic phenotyping is achieved with small cell culture volumes (~100 μl) in a short amount of time (1 to 2 min per strain). Our work demonstrates that cell polarizability is diminished in response to deletions of crucial outer-membrane cytochromes and enhanced due to additions of EET pathways. Results of this work hold exciting promise for rapid screening of direct EET or other cell envelope phenotypes using cell polarizability as a proxy, especially for microbes difficult to cultivate in laboratory conditions.

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