How bacteria can break down hazardous environmental pollutants

Derek Solomon (11 AM Micro) found an article from Science Daily about how microorganisms can be used in bioremediation. Long time readers (over the past two weeks or so) may recall my earlier posting about how genomics might allow us to genetically engineer organisms to improve in this process.

Throughout history bacteria have been known for their ability to break down strong biological materials. Bacteria can break down materials on our teeth and cause cavities, they can devour human flesh, and on a positive note; they have been used to clean oil spoils off of many shore lines. Recently, research done by a Fern R. McSorley, a graduate student in the chemistry department at Queen’s University, along with Bjarne Jochimsen, Bjarne Hove-Jensen discovered exactly how bacteria can break down phosphonic acids, potentially hazardous environmental pollutants found in various medicinal products, and some detergents and herbicides.

This key discovery has been overlooked by other research groups for almost 50 years and is considered a critical step in this field of research. The group of researchers has identified the exact proteins that are able to break down the environmental pollutants. Seeing that the proteins are now known, the process the proteins use to break down these materials can be studied and specialized bacteria can be synthesized in the lab to make the compounds harmless.

Since phosphonic acids are very stable, they do not break down easily or naturally in nature. In contrast, when in contact with these certain bacteria, the bacteria are able to break the bonds and the bonds in related molecules with little effort. Prior to this discovery, scientists merely knew the bacteria could do this, but did not know exactly how. Life forms ranging from humans all the way down to bacteria have complex protein networks that are designed to perform specific functions and follow specific pathways and can be regulated to turn on and off when needed. This new team of researchers has discovered that these bacteria are able to break down the strong materials by identifying a complex of proteins that is responsible for performing the bond-breaking step.

Phosphonic acids are so prevalent in our environment today that more than 20,000 tons of phosphonic acid is released in the Western Hemisphere annually. A majority of these pollutants end up contaminating the groundwater, which can lead to health concerns for humans and especially for aquatic life. With the discovery of exactly how these bacteria are able to break down the pollutants and the future potential to synthetically create specialized bacteria with the same protein complex, there may be a way to successfully eliminate a portion of the phosphonic acids in our environment.

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About ycpmicro

My name is David Singleton, and I am an Associate Professor of Microbiology at York College of Pennsylvania. My main course is BIO230, a course taken by allied-health students at YCP. Views on this site are my own.

Posted on December 8, 2011, in Guest Post. Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on How bacteria can break down hazardous environmental pollutants.

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