Bioremediation - using bacteria to clean up our mess

The Naked Scientists spoke to Lynne Macaskie, Birmingham University
23 January 2005

Interview with 

Lynne Macaskie, Birmingham University


Lynne - In Birmingham we are working on bacteria that can eat up the mess and waste we humans make. Bacteria can not only make energy, but they can curb some of the problems of global warming, clean up the environment, eat concrete and mop up oil spills.

Chris - How exactly can we use bacteria to clean up the world?

Lynne - Bacteria have been around for a long time and have changed to suit many different environments. If we feed them something awful, they can adapt quite quickly and start eating it. There is strong pressure on the bacteria to evolve so they can eat the substance, because if they don't, they die. When new microbes are discovered, we take them back to the lab and feed it what we're interested in (such as toxic metals). The bacteria will hopefully become resistant to the metal, grow to superbug proportions, and then eat up the lot!

Chris - Could using bacteria in this way harm the environment?

Lynne - No not really. If the food they are used to eating runs out, the bacteria will just sit and let something else take over.

Kat - You say that people discover new microbes. What kind of bugs do we find in the deep ocean?

Lynne - Lots of very strange ones! The deep ocean is fascinating: almost like another planet. As they are so far away from everything else on earth, they evolve all on their own into many weird and wonderful types. Samples that come up from deep sea cores have lots of new bacteria for us to test and hopefully use to clean up the environment. Some friendly bacteria can be used for eating oil. However, oil does not provide all the essential parts of a bacteria's diet. We therefore have to add in the extra things they are short of. This includes ammonium and phosphate, just like the fertilisers we put on our gardens. So fertilising your bacteria ensures they thrive and clean up mess.

Chris - What will we use for fuel when oil runs out?

Lynne - Bacteria can be used to protect the environment by helping us to move away from using hydrocarbons as fuel. Bacteria can manufacture hydrogen from simple things we no longer want, like chocolate waste or bits of bread! Hydrogen is a very clean fuel as it only gives off water when it is burned. This is a promising avenue for future fuel use.


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