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Disadvantages of Bioremediation

Instructor: Angela Hartsock

Angela has taught college Microbiology and has a doctoral degree in Microbiology.

There are some disadvantages and challenges associated with bioremediation. We will disuss environmental variables, biology, and the definition of remediation, and how these influence our ability to use bioremediation.

Too Good to Be True?

Let's say a train carrying hazardous fluids took a hard turn and crashed, spilling all those poisonous liquids into the soil. How to clean it up? What if you could, in effect, 'hire' bacteria and fungi to take in the bad stuff and use their own natural processes to turn it into something harmless?

Well, sometimes, we can do just that with bioremediation. Bioremediation relies on naturally occurring biological organisms to metabolize environmental pollutants, rendering them (in most cases) harmless to humans and wildlife.

At first glance, bioremediation seems like a cure-all for our environmental woes. But, as always, the devil is in the details. It's is an incredibly complex process that, while holding great promise, comes with significant limitations and unknowns. In this lesson, we will gloss over the obvious benefits of bioremediation and instead look at a few of the challenges, or disadvantages, of bioremediation.

When the Environment Doesn't Cooperate

Think for a minute about all the variables you try to manage when you are tending a vegetable garden. You try to control the wetness of the soil, you pay attention to rainfall, you think about fertilizer and soil acidity, you work to keep the soil loose and well mixed with organic material. Basically you babysit that garden with the hopes that your plants will thrive. With bioremediation we face a similar array of variables that can be difficult or next to impossible to manage.

The organisms that carry out bioremediation typically thrive at a specific temperature, oxygen level, pH, and nutrient level. But the environment is chaotic and this handful of variables can fluctuate a lot over hours, days, weeks, months...you get the point. So that means that the organisms doing the bioremediation might be doing well or get slowed down by changing conditions.

It is also really hard to predict how chemicals will behave in the environment. Some environmental contaminants are easily dispersed by rainfall, others stick to soil or mineral particles and are trapped away from the biological organisms needed to bioremediate them.

When the Biology Doesn't Cooperate

Besides the environmental variables, the organisms themselves can pose a bit of a challenge. To borrow a phrase, it is kind of like herding cats. Most of the time, bioremediation relies on organisms, like bacteria and fungi, that are native to the contaminated environment.

These microorganisms are equipped with a metabolism that can handle the contaminants. But that doesn't mean they are fast at breaking them down. In fact, they can be pretty darn slow. Sometimes, if they are lacking some key nutrients, we can add those nutrients and jump start things. But other times, the process is just slow. Which means there is time for the contaminant to spread or come into contact with wildlife or humans.

In other cases, there might not be any local organisms around that can metabolize the contaminant. In that case, you might bring one in. But it's hard to predict whether the added organism will survive in the ecosystem and how effective it will be. So, when it comes to the biology of bioremediation, there is a lot of promise but also a lot of challenges.

When Clean Isn't Clean Enough

Even if we have a supportive environment and a microorganism capable of bioremediation, it still isn't always enough to declare a victory. If you have ever had a dispute with a parent, child, roommate, or partner about cleanliness you know there is a lot of wiggle room when it comes to the definition of clean. One person's clean enough is another person's pig sty.

When it comes to bioremediation we typically have some threshold we want to reach. We need to get the contaminant to below a certain defined level before we can declare the environment remediated.

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