The world is a bit closer to unleashing bacteria as a powerful fuel source thanks to new research that found a way to watch and control the flow of electrons through the microorganisms.

Researchers at Queen Mary’s School of Biological and Chemical Sciences in London used fluorescent labeling to mark certain proteins that carry electrons. That’s right — they made them glow. Then, they watched how the proteins moved as they introduced the bacteria to different conditions, like bright lights.

The ultimate goal of the research is to figure out how to most efficiently use bacteria to make biofuel. Cyanobacteria are powerful little organisms — they helped create Earth’s oxygen atmosphere, and they still produce a significant amount of our air. Because they photosynthesize so effectively, they could eventually revolutionize biofuel technology.

Today, in practice, biofuel usually means ethanol derived from food crops like corn. That has a whole range of problems, including driving up food prices and relying on pesticides, genetic modifications and other environmentally damaging agricultural tools. So scientists have been hard at work developing alternative sources including energy-efficient non-food crops like switchgrass and agricultural waste products such as corn stalks.

The barrier to converting corn stalks or switchgrass to fuel is that they’re made of cellulose — a material that’s harder to break down than sugar-rich crops like corn (which explains why bourbon is made from corn, not grass). Researchers are developing increasingly sophisticated ways to use bacteria to break down the cellulose, but the technology isn’t yet commercially viable.

The Queen Mary scientists say the method they’ve invented for tracking electrons could help change that.

Main photo credit: adrigu/Flickr