Biology

Bioremediation: Basic Science Meeting Applied Goals
Kevin T. Finneran, Clemson University, Anderson, USA

Bioremediation is for the environment what holistic medicine is for human beings – a seemingly natural approach to making things within the system cleaner and functionally better. Unfortunately it suffers the same scrutiny as holistic medicine; when it is working no one seems too bothered by why or how it works, but when it fails people are very critical with respect to understanding what was actually happening in the first place. Scientists and engineers have been developing the science of bio-remediation for about three decades, based on earlier data we learned in the wastewater industry and corollary sciences like chemistry or petroleum engineering. What has emerged is a very detailed understanding of basic microbial and chemical processes, and where these two types of reactions overlap, to engineer site remediation efforts for contaminant transformation. This seminar will be divided into three sections. In the first we will explore some the basic aspects of bioremediation, and the classical studies upon which we are building our current practice. In the second section we will review some cutting edge research and practice, with a specific emphasis on use of molecular biology and advanced chemistry tools as they are applied to site remediation. Finally, we will look at future directions of our field with an emphasis on “greening” bioremediation and looking at all environmental impacts – not just the single contaminant of concern, with an approach our laboratory has coined sustainable bioremediation.

Bioremediation started primarily with petroleum biodegradation – spills of refined fuel or crude oil in marine or freshwater environments. Data were empirical; the processes involved were poorly understood and focused on the simplest metabolic pathways – aerobic respiration. When scientists and engineers wanted to apply bioremediation at a new site, they merely extrapolated data from alternate sites, whether or not the sites had biogeochemical similarities. This led to systemic failures in bioremediation efforts, that may have collapsed the field had it not been “rescued” by savvy scientists and engineers. Once the researchers and practitioners began a dialogue, the practice developed quite well. The parties involved began to understand the basic metabolic properties of the microorganisms involved, and started to examine the microbial ecology, or how the organisms influenced their environment and vice versa. This led to an explosion in basic bioremediation science.
The past decade has seen an extreme output in basic data related to biodegradation. This is evidenced by the number of presentations at the American Society for Microbiology (ASM) or comparable professional societies over the past 10 years. ASM Division Q (Environmental Microbiology) has been growing each year and now rivals medical microbiology as the largest division. Where previous research relied on empirical, somewhat reactive data, we now use predictive science based on microbial physiology and biochemistry to design and test bioremediation applications. Molecular microbiology has advanced more than any other part of the discipline, from characterizing microbial communities that biodegrade specific contaminants to using metagenomic analysis to predict whether biodegradation will take place. Our capacity to analyze actual environmental samples has also become more sensitive, and new analytical tools have been developed to facilitate field remediation efforts. Compound specific isotope analysis (CSIA) is one such tool that will be discussed.

Finally, we look at the future with the goal of becoming more sustainable as a practice. Remediation scientists and engineers have gotten away with many adverse environmental impacts, in the name of cleaning up a single contaminant. We will introduce our new approach – sustainable bioremediation, which is a novel way of looking at the big picture of site remediation, and developing and implementing technologies in the most responsible manner possible.

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