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Researchers find mechanism bacteria use to target specific chemical contaminants

COLUMBUS, Ohio New insight into the molecular-level interactions between bacteria and minerals may some day help scientists design bacteria with the express purpose of cleaning up toxic waste.

Hazardous waste experts know that certain bacteria can essentially eat toxic waste, reducing it to less noxious substances. But until now they didn't know what mechanisms allowed these bacteria to devour chemicals.

A new study by Ohio State and Virginia Tech universities showed how a particular bacteria uses iron oxide, or rust, to breathe. The researchers found that key changes in the expression of genes in Shewanella oneidensis enable the microbe to recognize and bind specifically to iron oxides.

This finding could help researchers manipulate the bacteria to make it more effective in cleaning up petroleum products at toxic waste sites.

"In some situations, S. oneidensis is capable of using organic contaminants similar to oil as a source of energy," said Steven Lower, a study co-author and an assistant professor of geological sciences at Ohio State. "Petroleum products are one of the main chemicals found in toxic waste dumps.

"Also, there's little to no oxygen in these underground sites, so the bacteria have to adapt to anaerobic conditions," said Lower, who is also a professor in the school of natural resources. This essentially means that in order for bacteria to grow and degrade an organic contaminate, it must be able to 'breathe' on something other than oxygen."

The researchers hope to one day be able to tailor bacteria so it could target a specific contaminant.

Lower pointed out that one problem with using microbes to help clean up contaminated sites is getting the bacteria to the site and then ensuring that it remains in place.

Knowing which gene the bacteria express in an anaerobic environment may enable researchers to genetically manipulate the microbes so they prefer iron oxides only in the presence
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Contact: Steven Lower
Lower.9@osu.edu
614-292 1571
Ohio State University
8-Dec-2003


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