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Learning Outcomes

  • Describe the use of prokaryotes in bioremediation

Microbial bioremediation is the use of prokaryotes (or microbial metabolism) to remove pollutants. The reduction of SeO4−2 to SeO3−2 and to Se0 (metallic selenium) is a method used to remove selenium ions from water. These bacteria, such as Pseudomonas aeruginosa, can convert Hg+2 into Hg0, which is nontoxic to humans.

One of the most useful and interesting examples of the use of prokaryotes for bioremediation purposes is the cleanup of oil spills. The importance of prokaryotes to petroleum bioremediation has been demonstrated in several oil spills in recent years, such as the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska (1989) (Figure 1), the Prestige oil spill in Spain (2002), the spill into the Mediterranean from a Lebanon power plant (2006), and more recently, the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico (2010).

To clean up these spills, bioremediation is promoted by the addition of inorganic nutrients that help bacteria to grow. Hydrocarbon-degrading bacteria feed on hydrocarbons in the oil droplet, breaking down the hydrocarbons. Some species, such as Alcanivorax borkumensis, produce surfactants that solubilize the oil, whereas other bacteria degrade the oil into carbon dioxide. In the case of oil spills in the ocean, ongoing, natural bioremediation tends to occur, inasmuch as there are oil-consuming bacteria in the ocean prior to the spill. In addition to naturally occurring oil-degrading bacteria, humans select and engineer bacteria that possess the same capability with increased efficacy and spectrum of hydrocarbon compounds that can be processed. Under ideal conditions, it has been reported that up to 80 percent of the nonvolatile components in oil can be degraded within one year of the spill. Other oil fractions containing aromatic and highly branched hydrocarbon chains are more difficult to remove and remain in the environment for longer periods of time.

Watch the video: Bioremediation: How biology heals the earth naturally. Shaily Mahendra. TEDxManhattanBeach (December 2022).