Our interdisciplinary group investigates biological electron transfer and energy conversion (universal features of life as we know it) with special emphasis on the interface between biotic and abiotic systems.The last century’s quantitative understanding of electron transport physics in solid-state systems has completely transformed our society by underpinning today’s information age. By developing new in vivo experimental tools and quantitative frameworks for analyzing biological electron transport and sequential redox reactions, our work is contributing to a similar transformative impact on biology.
While physical scientists in this space usually focus on isolated biomolecular systems (e.g. defined peptides or DNA sequences), we have chosen to apply physics approaches to tackle this problem at the ecophysiological level, by studying how electron transport in whole cells can dictate interactions with their environments. The basic mechanisms at play underlie all biological transformations, from respiration and photosynthesis to synthesis of biomolecules.
By seeking this understanding in microbes, the Earth’s unseen majority, and by focusing on extracellular electron transport (EET) as a basic link between the biosphere and the geosphere, our approaches can be harnessed for solutions to global-scale problems and for detecting the signatures of life in extreme environments (Astrobiology). Microbes performing EET drive major elemental cycles, including the carbon cycle, with significant consequences for climate change. Microbial electron transport can also be applied to environmental cleanup (bioremediation) of redox-active contaminants, including toxic heavy metals. The natural ability of microbes to perform redox reactions at solid surfaces can be exploited for the production of fuels (microbial electrosynthesis) and for the reverse process of green electricity generation in microbial fuel cells. From a human health perspective, the latter technology is particularly exciting, as it can be simultaneously applied for wastewater treatment in developing countries. Since microbial EET naturally evolved to interact with inorganic systems, a physics-based understanding may even enable the transmission and control of signals at hybrid living/synthetic interfaces, creating new materials that combine the replication, self-repair, and precise biochemical control of a natural system with the vast toolbox of nanotechnology.
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