Yale scientist receives National Science Foundation CAREER award to explore bacterial nanowires

Nikhil Malvankar, assistant professor of Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry at Yale, has received a Faculty Early Career Development Program (CAREER) Award from the National Science Foundation (NSF).

CAREER awards are the Foundation’s most prestigious awards in support of junior faculty who exemplify the role of teacher-scholars through research, education and the integration of education and research within their organizations.

Malvankar will receive a total of $800,000 over five years to support the project “Mechanism of Metallic Conductivity in Bacterial Pili Filaments.”

A faculty member at the Microbial Sciences Institute at Yale’s West Campus, his research has uncovered that hair-like protein filaments on bacteria called “pili” behave like metal nanowires.

The metallic conductivity of pili is essential for bacterial electron transfer during their respiration and communication. But existing models of this transfer rely primarily on tunneling and hopping mechanisms that are limited to a few nanometers. Dr. Malvankar has discovered that soil bacteria can transport electrons over centimeters, 10,000 times their size, using this novel mechanism of metallic conductivity in pili.  

“With the support of the NSF CAREER Award, we will be able to develop new methods to visualize protein structure and identify the crucial parameters in pili that give rise to metallic conductivity,” said Malvankar, who joined Yale in 2015.  

The CAREER project will use several complementary methods to identify the structural, molecular and biophysical basis of metallic conductivity in pili of Geobacter sulfurreducens. The studies will help unravel the mechanism of extracellular electron transfer in soil bacteria that occurs at rates and distances unprecedented in biology.

“This award from the NSF will enable Dr. Malvankar to pursue truly path-breaking research, such as the synthesis of protein-based electronic materials,” said Mark Hochstrasser, Eugene Higgins Professor and Chair of Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry at Yale. “He can now also integrate his highly interdisciplinary research program with educational activities that reach students at all levels.”

The success of the project could provide fundamentally new insights into the metabolism and communication of a diversity of microbial species that regulate our environment and are important for bioenergy and biofuel strategies.

More information about the project can be found at https://malvankarlab.yale.edu/

Contact: jon.atherton@yale.edu