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Airdate: Jul 21, 2010
Scientist: Prof. Derek Lovley

Geobacter - Cleaning Up Toxic Waste

Geobacter - Cleaning Up Toxic Waste
A recently discovered group of microorganisms have the ability to clean up contaminated groundwater.

ambience: water, birds

We've all seen rust-colored water pouring out of a faucet. Well, it turns out the same phenomenon that puts iron in our drinking water could be used to clean up toxic waste. I'm Jim Metzner and this is the Pulse of the Planet.

"Plants fix carbon dioxide into organic material. Microorganisms break it back down into carbon dioxide. So geobacter plays that role. This is part of the overall carbon cycle on Earth."

Derek Lovley is a professor of microbiology at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. Geobacter is a type of microorganism that Professor Lovley discovered in 1987. Just as we survive by breathing in oxygen, geobacter lives off of metals like iron.

"A common phenomenon that can be associated with geobacter is high quantities of iron found in drinking water. This is because geobacter lives in the ground, produces iron in this soluble form, which is what gets pumped up into the water distribution system very frequently."

But besides being the culprit behind rusty water, geobacter could soon be playing a useful role.

"A beneficial application of geobacter's ability to use metals is in the clean up of environments contaminated with uranium. We've done several field experiments now where we've very effectively removed uranium by stimulating the activity of geobacter living in uranium contaminated groundwater. This was done in a very simple manner, just dripping acetate, which is essentially vinegar, into the groundwater. Just by feeding it vinegar, we got this substantial growth of geobacter and they very effectively then took the uranium out of the groundwater."

"This strategy of using geobacter to clean up uranium contamination will work in a wide diversity of environments. The beauty of it is that it's extremely simple; it's extremely cheap."

We'll hear more about geobacter in future programs. Pulse of the Planet is presented by the National Science Foundation. I'm Jim Metzner