Published on May 27th, 2012 | by Michael Ricciardi
Slow but Micro Powerful: Living Snail Turned into Fuel Cell
I’m sure that if gastropods (snails and their ilk; word mean “stomach-foot”) could speak, they’d have a few words of protest over this exploitation of their enzymes… but one snail at least has been ‘harvested’ — for its energy output — without being harmed, say the experimenters.
Recently, researchers (Halámková et al) reported in the Journal of the American Chemical Society*, that they had successfully implanted a bio-engineered, biocatalytic electrode device into a snail — effectively turning it into a (bio) fuel cell (not to be confused with a biofuel).
In a clever bit of bio-mimicry, two different electrodes coated with two different enzymes (normally found in the snail’s hemolymph, its blood equivalent) were introduced into the corpus of the snails. One of the enzymes breaks down glucose (the fuel), shedding electrons in the process, the other electrode collects the electrons, and passes them along to positive ions in the hemolymph.
This is a key metabolic ‘engine’ for the snail’s physiology and requires a constant flow of electrons to make it work. The snail-based fuel cell was able to produce a few microwatts of power (solar cell calculators also run on microwatts) and achieve a voltage of .53 Volts (the current strength between the electrodes).
In recent years, many medical researchers and bio-engineers have grown interested in harvesting this living micropower in order to continuously power other bioelectronic devices implanted into (or attached to) living bodies (human or non).
There have been a few previous attempts to “harvest” energy from living organisms (and let us not forget the childhood invention of a six-year-old Nikola Tesla: a 16 – June bug-powered engine), but, according to these researchers, this implantation-and-extraction feat from a small, living invertebrate “is even more difficult and has not been achieved to date.”
Quoting more from the paper abstract:
‘The “electrified” snail, being a biotechnological living “device”, was able to regenerate glucose consumed by biocatalytic electrodes, upon appropriate feeding and relaxing, and then produce a new “portion” of electrical energy. The snail with the implanted biofuel cell will be able to operate in a natural environment, producing sustainable electrical micropower for activating various bioelectronic devices.’
The research was a collaboration between researchers at the Department of Chemistry and Biomolecular Science and Department of Biology, Clarkson University, Potsdam, New York , and the Avram and Stella Goldstein-Goren Department of Biotechnology Engineering and Ilse Katz Institute for Nanoscale Science and Technology, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, Beer-Sheva, Israel.
The research team members: Lenka Halámková, Jan Halámek, Vera Bocharova, Alon Szczupak§, Lital Alfonta§, and Evgeny Katz.
So, if one can put aside their melodramatic vision of lines of snails all wired together and sluggishly (couldn’t resist) pumping ions (to recharge our cell phones, or similar), this curious achievement may just open a tiny (and slow) avenue of ‘bio-sympathy’ and/or ‘bio-techno-cooperation’ (I assume we provide the sugar) between human and gastropod.
Not a perfect symbiosis with Nature, but close.
Then there’s the snail slime issue.
Top Photo: American Chemical Society