Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:

 

Earth Rx: A microbial biotechnology prescription for global environmental health

16.02.2006


Water. Waste. Energy. This trio of problems is among the greatest challenges to the environmental health of society. Water purification alone is becoming more problematic in the world due to our increasingly reliance on contaminated sources, such as polluted rivers, lakes and groundwater.



"All of these issues are closely interrelated," says Bruce Rittmann, director of the Center for Environmental Biotechnology in the Biodesign Institute at ASU. "For example, most of the pollution wastes that we worry about are really just energy put in the wrong place and causing trouble."

It was to address these challenges that Rittmann, along with a group of international colleagues, gathered at a symposium held at ASU last April to work on a roadmap for biology-based solutions to turn these threats into opportunities. The culmination of the workshop was a paper published as the cover story in the latest issue of Environmental Science & Technology (http://pubs.acs.org/subscribe/journals/esthag/40/i04/html/021506feature_rittmann.html).


Their solution: a synergistic marriage of two distinct disciplines, microbial ecology and environmental biotechnology. "Together, they offer much promise for helping society deal with some of its greatest challenges in environmental quality, sustainability, security, and human health," Rittmann stated in an excerpt from the paper.

For the majority of Earth’s 6 billion year history, microbes ruled, spreading to every nook and cranny on the globe, from geothermal vents on the ocean’s floor to arctic permafrost. Now, uncovering and categorizing this abundant biodiversity is one of the chief goals of scientists in the field of microbial ecology – and may be the key to helping the planet –by putting these rich microbial communities to work to help serve the needs of society through environmental biotechnology.

Leading the marriage are revolutionary changes in compiling vast amounts of genetic information on microbial organisms through state-of-the-art DNA-based techniques. Identifying just a single microbial specimen is a daunting task, considering, that there may be trillions of bacteria in every liter of water.

"We have hardly begun to tap the potential that is already provided by nature," said Rittmann.

The beginnings of microbial ecology started back in the 1940s and 1950s, when microbial cultures were initially sorted by size and shape. Before the modern DNA-based techniques, the function of a microorganism was assigned by selective culturing on agar plates or a nutrient-rich broth and selecting on the basis of metabolic function, which turned out largely to be a hit-or-miss approach.

"You would find a few organisms that just grew like crazy," said Rittmann. "We call them ’weeds’ because they take advantage of the luxurious conditions found in the lab but they might not be the ones who are important out in the real world, where it isn’t so luxurious."

To aid in the identification and function of individual microorganisms and communities, the first use of modern molecular biology tools began in the early 1980s, with the advent of polymerase chain reaction (PCR) amplification of microbial DNA and a new view of the evolution of organisms based on their ribosomal RNA.

These technologies have advanced into high-throughput genomic and proteomic protocols that can detect specific genes and their metabolic functions with great precision and detail. Other methods can now reconstruct entire genomes of what were once "unculturable" microbes.

Rittmann refers to this early period as a "profitable stamp collecting" approach – "absolutely vital in providing a cathedral foundation of knowledge; yet we now need to focus more on utilizing this knowledge."

Enter the field of environmental biotechnology. Environmental biotechnology has been around for almost a century, first adapted widely in the 1910s and 1920s when wastewater was cleaned up by a bacterial-laden sludge that speeds up the breakdown of the organic material in sewage.

With recent advances in biology, materials, computing, and engineering, environmental biotechnologists now are able to use microbial communities for a wealth of services to society. These include detoxifying contaminated water, wastewater, sludge, sediment, or soil; capturing renewable energy from biomass; sensing contaminants or pathogens; and protecting the public from dangerous exposure to pathogens.

Rittmann’s center puts some of these technologies into service, identifying microorganisms that help clean up pollutants such as trichloroethene (TCE) and perchlorate from the water supply and generating electricity from wastewater.

"Scientifically, it might be easiest to let the microbes convert the energy is organic wastes directly to electricity. However, they also can generate useful fuels, such as methane and hydrogen, and we are pursuing research on all of these renewable-energy forms."

Rittmann believes the key to achieving success through microbial ecology and biotechnology is to take advantage of microbial diversity as much as possible, particularly having different microbe to perform the same role. "It usually isn’t just one organism, a superbug or magic bullet," says Rittmann. "Instead, the best results require a community of microorganisms."

Rittmann is motivated by the huge benefits that environmental biotechnology and microbial communities can bring to society. "I think if we could succeed in capturing the energy out of waste materials, this would be a world-transforming technology and a real step forward to using more renewable forms of energy and much less reliance on fossil fuel."

Joe Caspermeyer | EurekAlert!
Further information:
http://pubs.acs.org/subscribe/journals/esthag/40/i04/html/021506feature_rittmann.html
http://www.asu.edu

More articles from Life Sciences:

nachricht Symbiotic bacteria: from hitchhiker to beetle bodyguard
28.04.2017 | Johannes Gutenberg-Universität Mainz

nachricht Nose2Brain – Better Therapy for Multiple Sclerosis
28.04.2017 | Fraunhofer-Institut für Grenzflächen- und Bioverfahrenstechnik IGB

All articles from Life Sciences >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: Making lightweight construction suitable for series production

More and more automobile companies are focusing on body parts made of carbon fiber reinforced plastics (CFRP). However, manufacturing and repair costs must be further reduced in order to make CFRP more economical in use. Together with the Volkswagen AG and five other partners in the project HolQueSt 3D, the Laser Zentrum Hannover e.V. (LZH) has developed laser processes for the automatic trimming, drilling and repair of three-dimensional components.

Automated manufacturing processes are the basis for ultimately establishing the series production of CFRP components. In the project HolQueSt 3D, the LZH has...

Im Focus: Wonder material? Novel nanotube structure strengthens thin films for flexible electronics

Reflecting the structure of composites found in nature and the ancient world, researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign have synthesized thin carbon nanotube (CNT) textiles that exhibit both high electrical conductivity and a level of toughness that is about fifty times higher than copper films, currently used in electronics.

"The structural robustness of thin metal films has significant importance for the reliable operation of smart skin and flexible electronics including...

Im Focus: Deep inside Galaxy M87

The nearby, giant radio galaxy M87 hosts a supermassive black hole (BH) and is well-known for its bright jet dominating the spectrum over ten orders of magnitude in frequency. Due to its proximity, jet prominence, and the large black hole mass, M87 is the best laboratory for investigating the formation, acceleration, and collimation of relativistic jets. A research team led by Silke Britzen from the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy in Bonn, Germany, has found strong indication for turbulent processes connecting the accretion disk and the jet of that galaxy providing insights into the longstanding problem of the origin of astrophysical jets.

Supermassive black holes form some of the most enigmatic phenomena in astrophysics. Their enormous energy output is supposed to be generated by the...

Im Focus: A Quantum Low Pass for Photons

Physicists in Garching observe novel quantum effect that limits the number of emitted photons.

The probability to find a certain number of photons inside a laser pulse usually corresponds to a classical distribution of independent events, the so-called...

Im Focus: Microprocessors based on a layer of just three atoms

Microprocessors based on atomically thin materials hold the promise of the evolution of traditional processors as well as new applications in the field of flexible electronics. Now, a TU Wien research team led by Thomas Müller has made a breakthrough in this field as part of an ongoing research project.

Two-dimensional materials, or 2D materials for short, are extremely versatile, although – or often more precisely because – they are made up of just one or a...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>

Anzeige

Anzeige

Event News

Fighting drug resistant tuberculosis – InfectoGnostics meets MYCO-NET² partners in Peru

28.04.2017 | Event News

Expert meeting “Health Business Connect” will connect international medical technology companies

20.04.2017 | Event News

Wenn der Computer das Gehirn austrickst

18.04.2017 | Event News

 
Latest News

Wireless power can drive tiny electronic devices in the GI tract

28.04.2017 | Medical Engineering

Ice cave in Transylvania yields window into region's past

28.04.2017 | Earth Sciences

Nose2Brain – Better Therapy for Multiple Sclerosis

28.04.2017 | Life Sciences

VideoLinks
B2B-VideoLinks
More VideoLinks >>>