S. oneidensis (an organism capable of actually reducing, or 'breathing', heavy metals) El-Naggar and colleagues find that when stressed these microscopic lifeforms can grow so-called bacterial nano-wires. These incredibly thin protrusions - really stalks of protein - exhibit electrical conductivity. This work builds on earlier studies that also hinted as this property.
They're no piece of copper when it comes to transporting electrons, but they seem to be on a par with semi-conductor materials.
The experimental work is quite wonderful, and shows that colonies of S. oneidensis may actually link themselves together in a remarkable type of electrical grid. Why do they do this, are they just engaged in some form of microbial Facebook? The answer may be one of survival. The respiration of S. oneidensis is acutely dependent on the ability to off-load unwanted electrons - performing chemical reduction on anything able to accept the electrons. If a single individual can't dump its electrons it dies. So, if you can send out nano-wires and make an electrical connection with someone else you can pass off your particles - and if that individual can't accept them it can simply re-route the current further along the network, until eventually it gets slurped up. It's an incredible ability, the colony comes to the rescue of the few, and nobody has to get out of their armchair.
As the researchers point out, beyond enabling the group to respire and survive, bacterial nano-wires open up a whole new avenue of fast communication - much speedier than chemical signaling. One cannot help but see a parallel between this situation and the web of neurons and electrical synapses lurking between our own ears. The more we learn about life on Earth, the more blurred the line becomes between 'simple' and 'complex' life, and the more archaic that classification appears.