Munching Microbes Make A Meal Out Of Toxic Substances

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. -- When it comes to cleaning up the environment, the answer may be right under our feet.

A Purdue University engineer is investigating how and why bacteria in the soil eat certain toxic chemicals, and he is developing procedures for using the hungry bugs in environmental cleanup efforts.

"We've known for decades that the soil contains microbes with the ability to degrade chemicals such as petroleum compounds," says Loring Nies, assistant professor of environmental engineering at Purdue. "But using them for that purpose has not been widely implemented because few on-site engineers have the knowledge or experience."

One of Nies' projects involves studying microbes that eat pentachlorophenol, a chemical used as a wood preservative.

"We're investigating a contaminated site in Indiana that used to be owned by a company that treated wood," Nies says. "For years they would dip the wood into the preservative, then hang it over the soil to drip dry. There are organisms 10 to 12 feet down in the soil that are degrading this chemical, both aerobically -- in the presence of oxygen -- and anaerobically, without oxygen. It's a fascinating case, because they don't degrade it all the time, and we don't really know why yet."

Nies will present a paper on his research on pentachlorophenol at the conference In-Situ and On-Site Bioremediation April 28-May 1 in New Orleans. The paper also will be published in the premier issue of Bioremediation Journal, to be available at the end of April.

Nies says the knowledge gained from his studies may help in understanding how and why microbes eat other types of toxic chemicals in the soil, and how they might be used in bioremediation efforts.

Nies and his students have taken samples from the contaminated site and are trying to determine the behavioral characteristics of microbes in the soil.

"There's some interesting environmental chemistry happening here," he says. "The pentachloro

Contact: amanda siegfried
Purdue University

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