Genetic method has promise for assessing environmental cleanup

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. -- Engineers are using genetics to develop a simple, quick method for assessing the progress of environmental cleanup efforts at sites contaminated with petroleum-based pollutants like gasoline and diesel fuel.

The technique works by screening soil for genes that reveal the presence of an enzyme produced by pollution-busting bacteria. If the enzyme is detected, that means bacteria probably are cleaning the soil. Information about the bacteria's presence and concentration might then be used to assess the progress of efforts to remove toxins from the contaminated soil.

"It's like a direct biochemical method to take the attendance of the bacterial organisms in the soil," says Loring Nies, an associate professor of civil engineering at Purdue University who specializes in bioremediation, or using microorganisms to clean up environmental contamination.

The method could be used to test soil at contaminated sites within a few hours. Conventional methods require that soil samples be taken to a laboratory, where bacteria are cultured on a growth medium. But that can take days and is not always effective because some microorganisms will not grow under laboratory conditions, Nies says.

The technique being developed at Purdue works by detecting the enzyme catechol 2,3-dioxygenase, which several types of bacteria produce when soil is contaminated by petroleum-based toxins such as benzene, toluene and xylenes. Engineers first extract DNA from contaminated soil samples and then search for the specific genes that reveal the enzyme's presence. Detecting the enzyme is made possible because of a genetic tool called a "primer," which is a small piece of DNA that matches the gene sequence indicating the enzyme's presence.

"When you extract DNA from soil you can get DNA from a billion different microorganisms, and we only want to know about this one little piece," says Nies, who is developing the technique with Cindy Nakatsu, a Purdue associat

Contact: Emil Venere
Purdue University

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