Toxin-using bacteria an answer to cleanse Yamuna?

New York, Jan 19: What if an army of bacteria can remove pollutants from the Yamuna, a river that daily gets untreated industrial waste and human waste in abundance, and make its water clean for various uses?

A daunting task but if we believe researchers from University of Georgia (UGA), US, there are colonies of bacteria buried deep in the mud along the banks of a remote salt lake that “breathe” a toxic metal to survive.

Their experiments with this unusual organism show that it may one day become a useful tool for industry and environmental protection.

“The bacteria possess a number of different enzymes that allow it to use dangerous elements that accumulate in wastewaters near mines or refineries and pose serious threats to humans and animals,” said James Hollibaugh, distinguished research professor of marine sciences at UGA and principal investigator for the project.

The bacteria is capable of reducing contaminants, including selenium and tellurium.

Preliminary tests suggest that the bacteria could be used to remove these pollutants from the wastewater and protect the surrounding ecosystems, said the study published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology.

“The bacteria could be used simply to clean up the water, but it might also be possible for the bacteria to help humans recover and recycle the valuable elements in the water,” added Hollibaugh.

This way, the water stays clean and industry does not waste a valuable strategic resource, he said.

The bacteria use elements that are notoriously poisonous to humans – such as antimony and arsenic – in place of oxygen.

“Just like humans breathe oxygen, these bacteria respire poisonous elements to survive,” said Chris Abin, doctoral candidate in microbiology.

For example, antimony is a naturally occurring silver-coloured metal that is widely used to make plastics, vulcanised rubber, flame retardants and a host of electronic components, including solar cells and LEDs.

The industries convert antimony into antimony trioxide for optimum use.

The researchers found that the bacteria make antimony trioxide naturally as a consequence of respiration – creating a useful industrial product without creating noxious byproducts or requiring legions of specialised equipment.

“The antimony trioxide crystals produced by this bacterium are far superior to those that are currently produced using chemical methods,” Hollibaugh said.

However, both Abin and Hollibaugh cautioned that more research must be done before any of these applications are ready to be deployed.

– Indo-Asian News Service