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Using Prokaryotes to Clean up Our Planet: Bioremediation

6 April, 2016 - 17:26

Microbial bioremediation is the use of prokaryotes (or microbial metabolism) to remove pollutants. Bioremediation has been used to remove agricultural chemicals (pesticides and fertilizers) that leach from soil into groundwater. Certain toxic metals, such as selenium and arsenic compounds, can also be removed from water by bioremediation. The reduction of Se0_{4}^{2-}to Se0_{3}^{2-}and to Se0^{0} (metallic selenium) is a method used to remove selenium ions from water. Mercury is an example of a toxic metal that can be removed from an environment by bioremediation. Mercury is an active ingredient of some pesticides; it is used in industry and is also a byproduct of certain industries, such as battery production. Mercury is usually present in very low concentrations in natural environments but it is highly toxic because it accumulates in living tissues. Several species of bacteria can carry out the biotransformation of toxic mercury into nontoxic forms. These bacteria, such as Pseudomonas aeruginosa, can convert Hg^{2+} to Hg^{0}, which is nontoxic to humans.

Probably one of the most useful and interesting examples of the use of prokaryotes for bioremediation purposes is the cleanup of oil spills. The importance of prokaryotes to petroleum bioremediation has been demonstrated in several oil spills in recent years, such as the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska (1989) (Figure 13.10), the Prestige oil spill in Spain (2002), the spill into the Mediterranean from a Lebanon power plant (2006,) and more recently, the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico (2010). To clean up these spills, bioremediation is promoted by adding inorganic nutrients that help bacteria already present in the environment to grow. Hydrocarbon-degrading bacteria feed on the hydrocarbons in the oil droplet, breaking them into inorganic compounds. Some species, such as Alcanivorax borkumensis, produce surfactants that solubilize the oil, while other bacteria degrade the oil into carbon dioxide. In the case of oil spills in the ocean, ongoing, natural bioremediation tends to occur, inasmuch as there are oil- consuming bacteria in the ocean prior to the spill. Under ideal conditions, it has been reported that up to 80 percent of the nonvolatile components in oil can be degraded within 1 year of the spill. Other oil fractions containing aromatic and highly branched hydrocarbon chains are more difficult to remove and remain in the environment for longer periods of time. Researchers have genetically engineered other bacteria to consume petroleum products; indeed, the first patent application for a bioremediation application in the U.S. was for a genetically modified oil-eating bacterium.

Figure 13.10 (a) Cleaning up oil after the Valdez spill in Alaska, the workers hosed oil from beaches and then used a floating boom to corral the oil, which was finally skimmed from the water surface. Some species of bacteria are able to solubilize and degrade the oil. (b) One of the most catastrophic consequences of oil spills is the damage to fauna.