Types of Bioremediation

Instructor: Angela Hartsock

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

In this lesson we will consider bioremediation by three major groups of living organisms, bioremediation by bacteria, mycoremediation by fungi ,and phytoremediation by plants.

Digging Deeper into Bioremediation

Biology has a lot of tricks up its sleeve. Most humans can appreciate the amazing complexity of their own bodies, but it is a lot harder to wrap your head around the interactions and biological feats of all the other organisms on the planet. However, we can get a taste of it through our understanding of bioremediation.

Bioremediation is the ability of biological organisms (mainly bacteria, fungi, and plants) to use environmental contaminants as part of their metabolism. In the process they turn these contaminants into less toxic or harmless byproducts. We can carelessly spill a waste that is toxic and these organisms don't bat an eye, they just attack it for energy and nutrition!

But there is a lot left unsaid in that definition of bioremediation. In this lesson we'll think about the different types of bioremediation and when each might be useful.

Bacterial Bioremediation

Generally when we say 'bioremediation' we refer to the activity of bacteria, as it is the most commonly used. So, we don't usually qualify the term bioremediation by saying 'bacterial bioremediation'. Instead, we only point it out if there are not bacteria contributing.

Thousands of species of bacteria are predicted to be inhabiting virtually every habitat on the planet. That means that basically anywhere we have environmental contamination we likely also have a robust bacterial community with the potential to help clean up.

Bacteria, like all living organisms, carry the genes to encode an array of proteins. Some of these are enzymes used to catalyze specific chemical reactions, and they have a diverse set at their disposal to support their complex metabolisms. Some bacteria have enzymes suited to degrading hydrocarbons (think petroleum), pesticides, and industrial chemicals and solvents.

Bacteria definitely get a gold star when it comes to bioremediation, but they aren't the only organisms helping us out.

Mycoremediation

We can't neglect the fungi, like mushrooms, molds, and mildews. For really big, hard to break down chemicals, fungi come to the rescue. 'Myco-' means relating to fungi, so mycoremediation is bioremediation carried out by fungi.

Fungi are able to produce enzymes that are kind of flexible and can adapt to fit large molecules. Fungi can also release their enzymes into the environment where they go to work on large molecules, breaking them up into smaller pieces that can be absorbed by the fungi and used for energy and growth.

Fungi in soil environments typically grow under the soil surface in large mats of interconnected filaments. Nutrients derived from environmental contaminants are taken up and spread through the fungal mat, accelerating the rate of bioremediation. Fungi are good at attacking pesticides, persistent organic pollutants, petroleum byproducts, and industrial wastes.

Naturally occurring fungi can certainly help with bioremediation, but in some cases certain fungi are applied to contaminated environments to support bioremediation. For example, in 2007 San Francisco was hit with a 58,000 gallon oil spill in the ocean. Volunteers used mats of hair to absorb the oil, then grew donated oyster mushrooms on the hair, which metabolized the oil into compost.

I think we can all agree that fungi also get a bioremediation gold star.

Phytoremediation

Plants already do so much, do they really need to add to their job description? Well, yes, they do. Plants participate in bioremediation to such a degree that we have a special name for the process: phytoremediation. 'Phyto-' means plant, so phytoremediation is bioremediation by plants.

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