History of Bioremediation

Instructor: Artem Cheprasov
Have you ever wondered if we can use nature to help nature? In this lesson, you'll learn about the major points and discoveries related to bioremediation.

What Is Bioremediation?

Whenever you hear about an oil or gasoline spill, what comes to mind? Besides the poor oil-covered birds, that is? You probably see a lot of sludge, a lot of dead fish, and lots of people going about and physically removing these petroleum products from the surface of the water and from the beaches. People can be seen washing animals and scrubbing rocks.

But wouldn't it be cool if we could use nature to help nature instead? Actually, there is a way to do exactly that! It's called bioremediation. This is the use of microbes like bacteria and fungi to detoxify any waste (contamination), especially from hydrocarbons (hydrogen and carbon based substances) found in the environment, such as oil and gasoline.

Bioremediation could help clean up an oil spill such as this one.
Oil Spill

Let's learn a bit about the history of bioremediation.

Discovery Of Oil-Degrading Bacteria

The history of bioremediation goes back to the 1940s. Back then, scientists understood that petroleum hydrocarbons could be degraded (broken down) by various microbes. However, what they didn't know at the time was how well these microbes could degrade these hydrocarbons, what limited this process, and how it could be made better, especially in aquatic environments where many spills did and still do occur.

By the 1970s, the research into this field had progressed quiet significantly. Microbiologists knew that nature had an answer. In the same petroleum contaminated water systems, they knew microorganisms existed that could degrade (break down) hydrocarbon substances, like gasoline. The bacteria were already there and they already loved to munch on and digest the gasoline.

The scientists also knew that if the right nutrients, like oxygen, nitrogen, and phosphate, could be added to the ground water in the contaminated wells, the bacteria would multiply like crazy and remove the toxic gasoline far faster and more efficiently than physical methods ever could.

Not long after these realizations, scientists also found out that they could use genetic engineering to overcome some problems. For instance, some bacteria could break down form A of a hydrocarbon but not form B. Other bacteria could break down form B but not form A. So what to do? Why not just combine them to have one super bacterium that could degrade both? That's exactly what scientists did to make bioremediation even more effective. But, as you'll find out, this wasn't the best solution to the problem.

Delivery Of Nutrients

Before more advanced research occurred in the 1980s, it was believed that bacteria could only degrade petroleum hydrocarbons in the presence of oxygen. However, research in the 1980s showed that some bacteria could also do the same in anaerobic, or oxygen free conditions.

Thus, in the 1980s and 1990s, various methods of trying to treat contaminated water systems with microorganisms were developed or tried. These systems varied in how the nutrients were delivered to the microorganisms or how the water would be decontaminated, either directly underground, or brought to the surface for treatment (if the contamination occurred in a well).

Why bother varying these things? Why not just stick those superbugs scientists developed in labs into the oil spill and be done with it? Well, it turns out that the use of various genetically engineered organisms that were developed to fight environmental contamination wasn't always justified, owing to things like high cost and the potential danger of releasing genetically engineered organisms into the environment. At the same time, nature already had all sorts of petroleum hydrocarbon degrading microorganisms found in the soil and water systems that were contaminated by petroleum products.

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