Monday, November 2, 2009

Nature's Oscar the Grouch

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Humans are dirty, dirty creatures. We have decided that the Earth is our own personal garbage dump - oil spills, nuclear accidents, landfills, CFC, carbon dioxide....and the list goes on.

But Nature is rebounding - bacteria have evolved mechanisms to detoxify and even live on all of these man-made garbage heaps. Scientists are now realizing the power of the natural metabolisms of bacteria to perform something called bioremediation. This strategy uses naturally occuring bacteria to detoxify chemicals such as PCB's, oil spills and other pollutants.

The types of bacteria you may have heard of: Salmonella, E. coli and others usually eat simple compounds like humans do - sugar, protein etc. Other bacteria can eat and grow on chemicals that are toxic to humans and our environment - which means these little bugs can be used to clean up our messes like the Exxon Valdez spill and the thousands of other oil spills left unreported.

There is not one single bacterium that can provide all of the enzymes to degrade a single molecule of oil. So, for every chemical that needs to be degraded, a specific combination of bacterial species must be used. But, if multiple species contribute an individual step in the breakdown pathway, the pollutant can eventually be degraded into a non-toxic molecule. This process is a natural, safe and effective way to detoxifying our environment.

Bioremediation strategies aren't only limited to oil spills - there are bacteria that can survive on and neutralize radioactive material - providing a potential method to clean up sites like Chernobyl and other nuclear accidents. Another pollutant, toluene, can be digested by a genetically engineered organism called Deinococus radiodurans.

Humans manage to destroy nature pretty much constantly, but Nature has evolved remarkable strategies to recover from all of this harm that humans inflict. We are slowly learning of how to use the power of Nature to right our wrongs.

--Torah Kachur

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