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MEI Online: Environmental Issues: Latest News: August 29th 2003

 
    
:: Bacteria to Clean Up Arsenic Pollution  

Research into the strange appetite of arsenic-eating bacteria won a La Trobe University (Australia) scientist a coveted place as finalist in this year's 'Fresh Science' forum. The 'Fresh Science' forum is a highlight of Australia's National Science Week, August 16-24.

Microbiologist Dr Joanne Santini leads a research group that is working out how to use bacteria with an appetite for arsenic to clean up contaminated wastewater on Australian and overseas mining sites and in drinking wells in Bangladesh and West Bengal, India. She and her students are studying 13 rare bacteria that were isolated from gold mines in the Northern Territory and at Bendigo in Central Victoria. Dr Santini says her laboratory is the only one in the world that has isolated these bacteria.

"If the iron guts of bacteria that can eat arsenic without dying could be harnessed to process this waste, less damage would be done to the environment and hopefully, one day, fewer people on the subcontinent will get sick.'"Theoretically, she says, it is cheaper and safer to use bacteria to clean up environmental mess than chemical methods using chlorine or hydrogen peroxide.

Arsenic occurs naturally in rocks and in this form is harmless, but when exposed to air and water, it becomes soluble and toxic to plants, animals and humans. Mining and drilling for drinking water wells can expose the arsenic and turn it into two toxic forms: arsenate and arsenite.

Arsenate is easy and safe to get rid of. But arsenite is not, and it is this form of arsenic Dr Santini hopes can be removed by the use of arsenite-eating bacteria on a mass scale. Dr Santini's group has found the enzyme directly responsible for converting arsenite to arsenate. It is now working to identify the same enzyme in the other microbes and hunting for other proteins and genes involved in eating arsenite.

 

 

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