People are continually moving into places that are hot, sunny and arid where drinking water is in short supply, says R. Kramer Campen, Penn State graduate student in geosciences. "The imperative to find ways to clean groundwater is paramount," he told attendees today (March 25) at the 225th American Chemical Society national meeting in New Orleans.
In the ocean, bacteria can be released into the water to clean up oil spills, carried to the target by the same currents that transport the oil. Groundwater poses a more difficult problem as these single-cell organisms tend to adhere to certain minerals in the soil preventing them from following the pollutant's trail. Bacterial adhesion is also responsible for many medical problems such as tooth decay and artificial limb and organ rejection. "There is a growing awareness that you need a molecular level understanding," says Campen. "At that level, the processes that cause a bacterium to adhere to a mineral in soil or to a tooth have to be the same."
For many years, scientists have noted that bacteria stick to iron particles in soil, but not to sand grains. Until recently, this has been explained by invoking the same forces that hold a balloon to the ceiling after you rub it on your sweater. Researchers thought that the tiny, negative electrical charges on sand grains repelled the negatively charged bacteria, while the positively charged iron attracted them.
However, Campen and his adviser, James Kubicki, assistant professor of geosciences, think it is all about the hair. Bacteria are covered with atomic-scale chains of complex sugar molecules with "one end fastened into the cell membrane and the rest extending outward," explains Campen. "The hair analogy is a good one."