Athens, Ohio -- Mother Nature has a special weapon to fight off threats to her environmental health: bacteria. But just how these tiny microbes do their work remains a mystery, one an Ohio University microbiologist is trying to unravel.
Under his microscope is a bacterial strain called T1 capable of breaking down one of the most commonly used industrial solvents, toluene. A common but toxic ingredient in gasoline, adhesives and household solvents, the substance has been known to contaminate groundwater and soil.
"A lot of current cleanup techniques involve taking all the contaminated soil from a site and hauling it off somewhere and dumping it or burning it," says Peter Coschigano, an assistant professor of environmental microbiology and lead investigator on this National Science Foundation-funded project. "That -- if you talk about tons and tons of soil -- can be expensive, and you're left with a big hole in the ground."
But environmental remediation professionals might be able to avoid pockmarking the earth if researchers can understand what conditions must exist for bacterial strains such as T1 to digest dangerous contaminants.
"The potential is that it can be more cost-effective and less damaging to the environment," says Coschigano, whose research appears in the March issue of the journal Applied and Environmental Microbiology.
T1 metabolizes toluene, a hazardous substance widely used as an industrial solvent. Though toluene can enter the environment via spilled drops of gas at the filling station, the use of paint thinners, or small industrial leaks, the bigger health and environmental threat would be a large-scale industrial accident, which can contaminate groundwater and soil.
Researchers at the New York University Medical Center discovered the bacterial strain T1 about 10 years ago, digging through the mud at contaminated sites in search of an organism in the natural environment that could break down toluene without oxyge
Contact: Andrea Gibson