PSE Success Story:
Argonne Scientists Use Bacteria to Power Simple Machines
The symbiosis of biology and hard materials is a major focus of contemporary
The ability to harness and control the
power of bacterial motions is an important
requirement for further development of
hybrid biomechanical systems driven by
microorganisms or synthetic microagents.
However, the design of smart, adaptive
and self-healing materials presents a very
This diagram tracks the movement of gears turned by the Bacillus subtilis bacteria.
Scientists at Argonne and Northwestern
University have discovered that swimming
bacteria can turn microgears that are millions
times more massive than themselves. The
microgears, just 380 microns long with slanted
spokes, are placed in the solution along with the common
aerobic bacteria Bacillus subtilis. Researchers observed
that the bacteria appeared to swim at random—but
occasionally the organisms collided with the spokes of
the gear and began turning it in a definite direction.
A few hundred bacteria work together in order to turn
the gear. When multiple gears are placed in the solution
with the spokes connected as in a clock, the bacteria will
turn both gears in opposite directions, causing the gears
to rotate in synchrony—even for long stretches of time.
This research helps provide new insights for the design of bio-inspired, dynamic
adaptive materials for energy solutions. For example, the new method could lead
to materials with novel properties that help improve the efficiency of solar panels
"Our discovery demonstrates how microscopic swimming agents, such as bacteria
or man-made nanorobots, in combination with hard materials, constitute a ‘smart
material’ which can dynamically alter its microstructures, repair damage or power
microdevices," said Igor Aronson, senior physicist, Argonne National Laboratory.
- Argonne Scientists Use Bacteria to Power Simple Machines poster (565 kB pdf)