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Name: Rockne
Status: Educator
Age: 30s
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Question:
What are some examples of which man made materials bacteria does or does not break down? Where could I find more information on this topic?



Replies:
Bacteria can degrade so many compounds that your question is nearly impossible to answer. I'll give some interesting web sites on the application of bacterial degradation. Take a look at the Virtual Museum of Bacteria for general properties and diversities of bacteria (www.bacteriamuseum.org). In this museum a display is planned on applied microbiology which will treat some of the topics you may be interested in. Check in a month or so. Follow just some examples that I hope are useful. Note that there is no omnipotent bacterium that can do all this. They are all different species, in part not even well characterized or combinations of species working in concert.

Bacteria can degrade oil (http://www.uscar.org/techno/bacteria.htm) and here's how they do it (http://www.mother.com/~wege/biodeg.htm).

They can also degrade other toxic organic compounds, including polyaromatic hydrocarbons (http://www.icp.ucl.ac.be/annrep97/degr/degr97.html).

They can degrade (that is, corrode) metals which is mostly not wanted (http://www.icp.ucl.ac.be/annrep97/degr/degr97.html).

They can degrade biological material in, and thus clean, waste water, check here what research is going on in this field (http://info.tuwien.ac.at/ficu/projects/prj18.htm).

Bacteria can detoxify chemicals in which heavy metals are present, though they cannot get rid of the heavy metals themselves. Similarly, Deinococcus radians is used to detoxify radio active waste which is often mixed with highly toxic chemicals, not because D. radians can 'destroy' radioactivity but because it is highly resistant to it. See the museum display (http://www.bacteriamuseum.org/species/Dradiodurans.shtml). So in conclusion, probably every organic compound can be degraded by bacteria.

Maybe we haven't identified the proper bacteria for some compounds (some PCBs and DDT are very stable in the environment) but that is not to say that there are no microbes around who can do it. Maybe we haven't looked properly. What bacteria can't do is change the atoms: radioactive isotopes and toxic elements cannot be eliminated. At the best the latter can be incorporated in metallo-organic compounds that are less toxic.

Dr. Trudy Wassenaar



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