Bacteria and Radioactive Waste
Can bacteria eat radioactive waste?
Yes. Radioactive waste is a material like any other, except that
some of the nuclei are radioactive. If a bacterium ingests a
radionuclide, it does not change the level of radioactivity -- only
its chemical form. Having bacteria eat radioactive contamination
might be a useful technique, but its purpose would be to dislodge
the material so it could be concentrated and placed in some sort of
It is worth pointing out that the biosphere contains lots of natural
radioactive material, including our food supply, so we eat
radioactive material every day in very small quantities. This is
nothing to worry about -- humankind has been eating radioactive
foods since Day 1.
Roger Blomquist, PhD
Argonne National Laboratory
Thanks for your question. Most bacteria die quickly when exposed to radiation
at the levels normally found in any radioactive waste. However, there are several
types for which this is not the case. Deinococus radiodurans is a highly radioresistant
bacterium which can be used to precipitate out uranium from radioactive waste, as well
as to detoxify mercury and toluene in radioactive waste. Work is ongoing to better
understand how this bacterium and similar bacteria (such as some species of
Rubrobacter) protect themselves against high radiation doses and how to modify
them to remove specific components on a large scale from radioactive waste and
groundwater contaminated with radioactive materials.
You can learn more about these bacteria and their history from the following links:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Deinococcus_radiodurans, “Deinococcus radiodurans”
http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1694275/, “Engineering of Deinococcus
radiodurans R1 for Bioprecipitation of Uranium from Dilute Nuclear Waste”
http://www.usuhs.mil/pat/deinococcus/FrontPage_DR_Web_work/Pages/Deinococcus%20Macia%20Stone%202009.pdf , “Metal Balance Helps Explain Survival of Microbial ‘Superhero’”, Microbe, Vol. 4, Number 4, pp. 164-5, 2009.
If you have any further questions, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dr. Laural Briggs
Nuclear Engineering Division, Argonne National Laboratory
I Googled "Radiation Waste Eating Bacteria" and found the following:
This was dated in 2007 and says that this a future possible answer.
This site says that this bacterium turns soluble uranium (uranium that
dissolves into water) into solid form. It does not say that it renders the
This article is the most promising, but it is full of the words "could"
"might be able to"
If there were a known bacteria that ate radioactive waste, we would know
about it because electric companies would be all over it to solve one of our
So I guess the absolute answer is that we haven't found that bacteria yet.
Maybe you can find it if you become a biology researcher.
Click here to return to the Physics Archives
Update: June 2012