Bioelectrochemical systems (BESs) harness electrons from microbial respiration to generate power or chemical products from a variety of organic feedstocks, including lignocellulosic biomass, fermentation byproducts, and wastewater sludge. In some BESs, such as microbial fuel cells (MFCs), bacteria living in a biofilm use the anode as an electron acceptor for electrons harvested from organic materials such as lignocellulosic biomass or waste byproducts, generating energy that may be used by humans. Many BES applications use bacterial biofilm communities, but no studies have investigated protein expression by the anode biofilm community as a whole.
To discover functional protein expression during current generation that may be useful for MFC optimization, a label-free meta-proteomics approach was used to compare protein expression in acetate-fed anode biofilms before and after the onset of robust electricity generation. Meta-proteomic comparisons were integrated with 16S rRNA gene-based community analysis at four developmental stages. The community composition shifted from dominance by aerobic Gammaproteobacteria (90.9 ± 3.3%) during initial biofilm formation to dominance by Deltaproteobacteria, particularly Geobacter (68.7 ± 3.6%) in mature, electricity-generating anodes. Community diversity in the intermediate stage, just after robust current generation began, was double that at the early stage and nearly double that of mature anode communities. Maximum current densities at the intermediate stage, however, were relatively similar (~ 83%) to those achieved by mature-stage biofilms. Meta-proteomic analysis, correlated with population changes, revealed significant enrichment of categories specific to membrane and transport functions among proteins from electricity-producing biofilms. Proteins detected only in electricity-producing biofilms were associated with gluconeogenesis, the glyoxylate cycle, and fatty acid β-oxidation, as well as with denitrification and competitive inhibition.
The results demonstrate that it is possible for an MFC microbial community to generate robust current densities while exhibiting high taxonomic diversity. Moreover, these data provide evidence to suggest that startup growth of air-cathode MFCs under conditions that promote the establishment of aerobic-anaerobic syntrophy may decrease startup times. This study represents the first investigation into protein expression of a complex BES anode biofilm community as a whole. The findings contribute to understanding of the molecular mechanisms at work during BES startup and suggest options for improvement of BES generation of bioelectricity from renewable biomass.