The power-generating mechanism used by well-known marine bacteria was identified by a team of scientists from the UK and the US.
University of East Anglia collaborated with the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Washington on the research project.
Dr Tom Clarke, a lecturer at the school of biological sciences at the UEA, who led the research, told the BBC that the bacterium Shewanella oneidensis had been seen influencing levels of minerals in lakes and seas but no-one really knew how it did it.
Clarke said that the scientists noticed that iron and manganese levels in the lake changed with seasons and happened in co-ordination with the bacteria's growth patterns.
However, he said, what was not known was the method through which they brought about these changes in mineral concentrations.
To understand how the bacteria did it, Clarke and fellow researchers remade a synthetic version of the bacterium and discovered that the organism generated a charge, and effected a chemical change, when in direct contact with the mineral surface.
Clarke said that understanding the mechanism gave scientists a chance to harness it and use it as a power source in places and for devices and processes in inaccessible or hostile environments.
Clarke added that it is very useful as a model system and the bacteria are very robust, as can be seen in the lab as the researchers are very rough with it but still the bacteria puts on with them.
The research has been published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.