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A Battery Made by Bioengineered Viruses

Illustration for article titled A Battery Made by Bioengineered Viruses

All viruses have an organic outer shell, but it turns out that with a little genetic tinkering they can be trained to produce an inorganic outer shell made of gold or cobalt oxide. Angela Belcher's lab at MIT has created an entire factory of trained viruses whose genes have been reprogrammed to grow battery ingredients. They're also growing ingredients for solar cells, as well as computer monitors and water-purification systems.

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Belcher told a rapt audience at the AAAS conference over the weekend about how she could create a liquid full of these altered viruses, dip a thin sheet of plastic into it, add a few more ingredients, and wind up with a translucent, ultra-thin battery. After working on this project for just over a year, her team got the battery to power an LED, and now they're scaling up to something that could power your next laptop or cell phone.

"Let's see what we can get biology to do for us," she said. "It's just a matter of giving biology new opportunities, new materials to work with." One audience member asked if Belcher is concerned about the viruses mutating and perhaps replicating on their own. Not possible, responded Belcher. The only mutations she's seen so far have been viruses reverting back to their old state (ie, making regular virus shells instead of battery components), and viruses making depolarized battery components.

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So we won't be seeing a plague that turns your lithium ion batteries into piles of virus any time soon.

Biomolecular Materials Group [Angela Belcher's Lab]

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DISCUSSION

annaleenewitz
Annalee Newitz

@AdamL: Well, there are always unpredictable outcomes. But viruses who build themselves coats made of metal or gold aren't exactly dangerous. These are bacteriophages, so they only attack bacteria — it's not like they'll jump inside your body and try to make batteries. Even if they did, it would be hard for them to do that without having access to gold particles and cobal oxide. (No, you don't have those elements in your body.) So I think in this case we're pretty safe.