Bioremediation Examples & Uses

Instructor: Sarah Friedl

Sarah has two Master's, one in Zoology and one in GIS, a Bachelor's in Biology, and has taught college level Physical Science and Biology.

Bioremediation is a useful technique for removing contaminants from various environments. In this lesson you'll learn about some of the applications and uses of bioremediation.

What is Bioremediation?

As a marine scientist, the Deepwater Horizon (DWH) oil spill of 2010 changed my life forever. But this unprecedented catastrophe impacted more than just scientists. It affected the Gulf of Mexico ecosystems, people's livelihoods, Gulf state economies, and more.

A spill the size of DWH takes a lot of work to clean up. One technique that was employed was bioremediation. 'Bio' means life and 'remediation' means to fix something. So with bioremediation we're using biological organisms to help fix something, in this case the environment. And in the case of DWH it was specifically to clean up oil.

Here's how it works. In any environment there are natural decomposers that break down dead, decaying, and other organic matter. These might be protists, fungi, bacteria, or other microorganisms, and they have a seriously important job! They act as nature's garbage disposal and if they didn't break down this organic material it would just keep building up. Bioremediation essentially takes this process and puts it into overdrive. The decomposers are given 'incentives' such as food and oxygen, accelerating their growth and speeding up the rate of decomposition.

Just like anything else, bioremediation is not perfect and it's not ideal for all situations. But in this lesson we're going to look at some of the different ways that bioremediation can be helpful in cleaning up environmental problems.

Bioremediation for Water Contamination

We already touched on bioremediation in oil spill cleanup, so let's start there. Believe it or not, there are bacteria in ocean waters that actually enjoy eating oil! When a spill occurs there is usually a large amount of oil and this can be difficult for those bacteria to tackle. So dispersants are added to help break up the oil into tiny droplets that are easier for the bacteria to eat. Dispersants also serve another purpose though: they can help stimulate growth of the oil-eating bacteria because the bacteria may find the dispersants to be tasty too!

Oil-eating bacteria can be used for bioremediation in oil spill cleanups. Additionally, the dispersants used to break up the oil may provide an extra food source for the bacteria.
oil slick

Bioremediation can also be used in other water systems like rivers, streams, and estuaries. Lawn fertilizers, pesticides, and other contaminants find their way into these waters as they get picked up by rain water that runs down the land and into the water. Just like with oil spills, biological degraders can be used to break down these harmful substances as well.

Sewage (waste water) treatment is another practical application of bioremediation. Sewage is a mixture of wastes, chemicals, and contaminants. In order for the water to be safe again it needs to be treated. Microorganisms to the rescue! Not only is bioremediation an effective way to clean waste water, it's also very cost-effective. This makes it a useful technique for both developed and underdeveloped communities alike.

Compost Bioremediation

Let's move away from the oceans and take a look at how bioremediation can be used on land. Many farms use herbicides and pesticides on their crops, but these doesn't necessarily belong in the soil, and they can also infiltrate both ground and surface waters. Bioremediation can be used to decontaminate soil by mixing it with compost, which is decomposed organic matter full of all sorts of - you guessed it - decomposers! Compost bioremediation can not only rid the soil of contaminants but also produces a really healthy soil in its place.

Storm water runoff can carry harmful contaminants such as herbicides and pesticides into waterways. Compost bioremediation is one way to filter out and break down these contaminants.
stormwater runoff

Compost bioremediation has also been used to filter storm water. Here, a box is designed that allows water to flow into it, and passing through layers of bioremediation compost. This filters out debris, scum, and chemical contaminants from the water, preventing contaminants and debris from traveling through storm water runoff.

Bioaugmentation

Even though bioremediation is a faster version of natural decomposition, it can still take a while. Therefore, an alternative called bioaugmentation is sometimes used. To augment something is to enhance it, so now we're talking about enhancing the decomposers themselves, most commonly through genetic engineering. The idea here is that by creating 'super decomposers' the job can be done more quickly and efficiently than simply coaxing the natural decomposers into working a little faster.

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