How Does Bioremediation Work?

Instructor: Angela Hartsock

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

Bioremediation is the process of a biological organism metabolizing or neutralizing an environmental pollutant. In this lesson we will look at how this happens in the environment thanks to the metabolic activities of microorganisms.

A Microbial Buffet

If you could zoom in and check out the microbial zoo living in the environment, you would find a few things. First, you would find tons of microorganisms, microscopic life forms including protozoa, fungi, bacteria and archaea. They would be living in soil and water, and associated with plants and animals. We are literally surrounded and covered by these life forms. Second, you would find that these tiny organisms might look pretty simple, but they have complex appetites, being able to consume or metabolize a wide range of chemicals. But, each microorganism has its own repertoire of metabolic capabilities. So one bacterium might like to use mercury, while another might like to use petroleum, and still another might just like to use regular old sugars. In the environment there is typically a complex set of chemicals available to support microbial metabolism. The kind of chemicals available will determine which microbe flourishes (the ones that can eat the available compounds) and those that languish (the ones that can't eat the available compounds).


Some of the chemicals in the environment end up there due to human activities, including accidental spills, mining, industrial activities, pesticide application, and disposal. In some cases, these chemicals are benign and don't pose a threat or concern to the environment or human health. In other cases, these chemicals are considered pollutants and pose an obvious threat. It can be expensive and challenging to clean up environmental pollutants, but in sometimes, microorganisms and their eclectic appetites lend us a helping hand. Bioremediation refers to the breakdown or neutralization of a pollutant in the environment by biological organisms.

Let's run through an imaginary scenario to see how bioremediation works. You can follow along by referring to the image. Remember that the environment is host to a wide range of different microorganisms, depicted here as blue, green, and pink. There is also a wide range of different chemical compounds that can be metabolized, depicted here as gray circles. Let's imagine, in step 1, that a pollutant, depicted by the yellow triangles, is released or spilled into the environment. With the vast metabolic abilities found in microorganisms, there is the potential that an organism is present that can metabolize the pollutant. Let's imagine it's the little blue cells in our image. Now in step 2, we can envision that these blue cells will begin to flourish as they start metabolizing the pollutant. As a consequence, in step 3 we can see that over time the pollutant will decrease in the environment, and in step 4, at some point we will likely return to something that somewhat resembles our starting condition. That in essence is what we are hoping for during bioremediation.

A scenario for how microorganisms respond to and remove pollutants in the environment.
environmental scenario for bioremediation

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