Bio & Life Sciences Energy & Green Tech

Better Living Through Bacteria

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Chances are, when you hear the word “bacteria,” your mind goes straight to the negative interpretations: nasty infections, food poisoning, tainted water. But the vast majority of bacteria on earth are harmless to humans—and some, if scientists have anything to say about it, could become downright friendly.

From a scientific perspective, bacteria and their microbial brethren have great potential as teeny tiny human helpers. For one thing, their genomes are quite simple, so engineering these organisms to perform a new function or enhance an existing trait is less likely to be thwarted by complex, unforeseen genetic interactions. They reproduce rapidly and require little in the way of nutrients, so growing a few generations of organisms with various biological alterations is fast and inexpensive. Microbes can survive—and even thrive—in the harshest of environments, from extreme temperatures to pH to oxygen levels and more.

And just what might those alterations be? If you can think of it, scientists might one day try it. Imagine harmless bacteria that will eat all the food particles off your dirty dishes, conserving all the water and electricity you now use to run your dishwasher. Or a bio-based fuel that generates energy from bacteria as they consume an abundant resource like trash. Or an ultra-efficient cleaning team that could eat up oil spills in water.

Actually, that last one isn’t imaginary. As we approach the third anniversary of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, scientists have started to publish comprehensive findings from their studies of an incredible environmental response to the disaster: within months, microbes had broken down much of the dangerous methane and oil into harmless elements. For example, of the 200,000 tons of methane spewed out, almost none of it was detectable in the water just two months after the oil stopped flowing. Some of the hydrocarbons were eliminated in a matter of days. While certain microbes have long been known to have such bioremediation properties, scientists were surprised by the speed and efficiency of this response to such a wide-scale disaster.

Microbes that could safely eliminate oil, mercury, radioactive waste, and other toxins are in high demand. Today, some biologists are focused on finding existing microbial species that naturally perform these tasks, while a group called synthetic biologists are working to reengineer known microbes to add these skills. For example, the microbes that ate up the methane and oil in the Deepwater Horizon spill did so by consuming oxygen—so they cleaned the oil, but depleted the oxygen supply in that large area of water, causing other ecological problems. Synthetic biologists could attempt to isolate the genes responsible for that microbe’s bioremediation traits and implant them into an organism that feeds on something less essential than oxygen.

With luck, once these biologists figure out the answer to the ideal bioremediating bacteria, they can get to work on the really important things—like cleaning those dirty dishes.

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