by Suzanne Winter
Iron-breathing microbes, Geobacter. © Derek Lovley
Kelly Nevin & Ben Barnhart, University of Massa-
If the power of Superman resided solely in his supernatural abilities, then Bruce Wayne’s Batman would never have been able to compete on his level. But when the other factors that superheroes depend upon are accounted for—sidekicks, spandex, sarcasm—both Superman and Batman can claim success in the world of do-goodery and hunky haircuts. In other words, the strength and effectiveness of an individual’s power often depends entirely on the creative use of raw materials.
This reality is mirrored in the microbial realm: organisms compete to occupy and dominate specific niches through adaptation and natural selection, and it’s the ones that play by an entirely different set of rules that may have the possibility to change the world.
Notably, species that have evolved innovative and, subjectively, weird methods of living have long intrigued scientists with their survival abilities and preferences. Consider the fascination with the extremophiles in the hot springs at Yellowstone National Park that led to the isolation of Taq DNA polymerase from Thermus aquaticus, surely one of the most important enzymes in the molecular biology lab. And while many microbes follow the well-studied route of using oxygen as a final electron receptor, researchers are increasingly looking at Geobacter species that use iron oxides as the final electron receptor in order to uncover the secrets enigmas of environmental restoration, energy harvesting, and the creation of the world.