What is Bioremediation?

Instructor: Angela Hartsock

Angela has taught college microbiology and anatomy & physiology, has a doctoral degree in microbiology, and has worked as a post-doctoral research scholar for Pittsburgh’s National Energy Technology Laboratory.

In this lesson, we will discuss and define the process of bioremediation, where living organisms are able to remove or neutralize an environmental contaminant.

Bioremediation Defined

I think it's universal. All of us, at one time or another, have been told to go clean our rooms. Even though we likely balked at the command as if it was a huge inconvenience, in reality it's a pretty simple task. Your room is pretty much self-contained with a general organization and a manageable (in most cases!) amount of stuff to be dealt with.

But what happens when there is a big mess in the environment? Something like an oil spill, or a chemical spill, or radioactive waste? How does that get cleaned up? And, maybe more importantly, who does the cleaning?

Bioremediation is a process where biological organisms are used to remove or neutralize an environmental contaminant or waste. The 'bio-' part refers to the biological organisms, which typically includes microscopic organisms, like fungi and bacteria. And, the '-remediation' part refers to remedying the situation.

Within the Earth's biosphere, microorganisms grow in the widest range of habitats. They grow in soil, water, plants, animals, deep sea vents, and arctic ice, just to name a handful. Their shear numbers (billions in a gram of soil, millions in a milliliter of water) and their appetite for a wide range of chemicals makes microorganisms the perfect candidate for acting as our environmental janitors.

Microbial Diets are Diverse

Microbes can metabolize a wide range of chemical compounds. In this context, we are focusing on environmental pollutants but don't forget that microbes also break down the normal stuff, like sugars, proteins, and fats -- the stuff we typically think of as food. Some of the more exotic fare favored by microbes includes hydrocarbons (petroleum), pesticides, TNT (dynamite), and uranium.

In some cases, microbes can break down pollutants to completely harmless by-products, like carbon dioxide and water. In other cases, microbes can change the structure of the contaminant to make it harmless to humans and animals or change the solubility of the contaminant so that it can no longer mix into and move with water, effectively sequestering the contaminant and limiting human and animal exposure.

One example of bioremediation is the Deep Horizon oil spill in 2010. Incredible amounts of oil were spilled into the Gulf of Mexico. While humans mobilized massive containment and cleanup efforts, at a microscopic scale, a much more important cleanup was underway.

During and after the spill, scientists were tracking the oil contamination and taking samples to detect the activity and abundance of bacteria in the contaminated zone. Their analysis revealed a robust microbial response to the presence of the oil. Microbes, which were able to metabolize the oil, flourished and contributed significantly to the remediation of the contaminated zone. The microbial response was key to limiting the environmental impact of the spill.

The microorganisms (shiny bright objects) present in the water of the Gulf of Mexico.
Bacteria in water sample

Natural and Artificial Ecosystems in Bioremediation

So if microbes are so good at degrading our environmental contaminants what do we have to be worried about? By comparison to the idea of cleaning our rooms, when we think about clean up of a contaminant in the environment, we can envision some obstacles.

A mess in the environment isn't nicely contained like a mess in a room. Environmental contamination can spread through soil, water, and wind. Living organisms can come into contact with or consume the contaminant. And, even though many contaminants can be degraded by microbes, sometimes this microbial breakdown is really, really slow. Too slow for our comfort and safety.

So right now there are a few options when it comes to bioremediation:

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