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FEATURE ARTICLE
Natural Cleanser For Contaminated Soils Discovered
May 2005

Utah State University researchers recently discovered a new bacteria that is a natural cleanser for contaminated soil. The bacteria, now being used around the world, is an inexpensive and highly effective solution to pollution.

“This project shows mother nature’s capability to be a master engineer,” said Ron Sims, biological and irrigation engineering department head. “Past disposal practices and accidental spills have put these carcinogens in our environment, and nature has figured out a way to cleanse herself. We want to be able to understand it better through genomic analysis.”

Engineers often use other human-made chemicals to clean up contaminated sites, but these microbes will provide a natural solution, said Mr. Sims. Bioremediation cleans up the environment by allowing living organisms to degrade or transform hazardous organic contaminants using natural biology. It offers an attractive solution to pollution cleanup because it can occur on-site and at relatively little cost compared to other alternatives, he continued.

The team received a $1.5 million dollar contract from the U.S. Department of Energy to further study the bacteria. Mr. Sims discovered the microbes on a landsite in Libby, MT contaminated by chemical carcinogens called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH’s). The site had previously been used by industry as a place to apply preservatives to wood, yet Mr. Sims found the land to be relatively free of toxins and asked the question, why? After conducting soil analysis tests, he found microbes in the soil that had destroyed the toxic chemicals.

Mr. Sims then collaborated with researchers from the Utah State biology department to identify the microbes. The three Libby-site microbes responsible for the remediation were mycobacterium isolates. The other two mycobacterium isolates capable of degrading PAH’s were found at other locations in the United States by Carl Cerniglia at the Arkansas Toxicology Center. Because few of these mycobacterium isolates have been characterized genetically, Utah State’s Center for Integrated Biosystems funded the biologists to examine the genetic material for the five isolates. They answered questions about the size of their chromosome and whether plasmids were present in the mycobacterium.

“Putting together genomes tells us a lot about the history of the world and may even help us with its future,” said Joanne Hughes, a Utah State Biology professor.

The Department of Energy will sequence the genetic material of the microbes, and the researchers will then participate in the annotation process by which genes in the sequences will be identified. The researchers will be able to understand the genetic material that allows these bacteria to degrade the PAHs and survive in the soil. Such knowledge may help researchers better understand and utilize the organisms to destroy PAH contaminants in the environment by applying engineering principles to microbial biotechnology, said Mr. Sims.

“This research is extending itself to the world, and we are really excited about it,” said Anne Anderson, biology professor and team member.

The group wants to fully understand how these microbes function and survive in the environment so contaminated sites around the world can reap the benefits.

Collaborations are currently under way in Nizhnekamsk in the Russian Federation to assist with the treatment of industrial residues, in Poland to renew soils for agricultural production and in the Netherlands to clean up sediments dredged from canals and waterways.

“I want to congratulate the Utah State team on the funding for this project,” said Joop Harmsen, senior scientist at Alterra Research Center and Wageningen University in the Netherlands. “PAHs have contaminated large amounts of sediment in the Netherlands, and doing this naturally through bioremediation is the most cost-effective way to treat the contaminated sediments.”

The research involves many levels of cooperation between the sciences and engineering fields but also extends to social scientists and economists. Utah State undergraduates and graduate students from the Colleges of Engineering and Science are also participating in the project. Researchers said student and faculty interest in this project is high because of its human-interest orientation.

In Orson Wells’ classic tale “War of the Worlds,” invisible bacteria saved the world as well as the people in it. Through this project, life is imitating art and through these unique bacteria the world may stay a little cleaner, said Mr. Sims. ##


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