Microorganisms used in bioindustrial applications can now be monitored automatically

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In South Carolina, researchers at the Savannah River National Laboratory developed an automated electrochemical technique to monitor the growth status and energy levels of microorganisms used in biotechnology industries in real time. The new method improves the immediacy and cost-effectiveness of results compared to conventional sampling and analysis often used in the production of biofuels, chemicals, pharmaceuticals and foods.

To ensure they are behaving optimally for an industrial application, microorganisms and their chemical byproducts must be monitored. The conventional approach is to take periodic samples from microbial cultures to analyze the health of the cells, which is time consuming, labor intensive, and costly.

With SRNL’s new automated method, when energy levels decrease, a few of the microbes in a culture pull energy into their cells in the form of electrons from electrodes held adjacent to the culture. The small portion of the culture that contacts the electrodes serves as an early warning system for sub-optimal conditions. The energy taken into the microbes from the electrodes shows up on a computer screen as an increase in electrical current. Because this electrochemical activity can be monitored as it happens, this technique can be used to maintain the right conditions for optimal microbial behavior.