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Airdate: Jul 05, 2010
Scientist: Terry Hazen

Microbes

Microbes
Microbes outweigh all the plants and animals on Earth, and they can degrade any compound - even oil.

Transcript:
TH: "There is no compound manmade or natural that microbes can't degrade."

JM: Microbes are microscopic organisms found everywhereunderground, in clouds, in your car, and in your body. If you took all the microbes in the world and were able to somehow weigh them, they would be heavier than all the plants and animals in the world, combined. I'm Jim Metzner, and this is the Pulse of the Planet. Terry Hazen is a microbiologist and head of the Ecology Department at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. He studies the role of microbes on our planet, including their ability to decontaminate the natural environment.

TH: "Microorganisms can actually bioremediate, which means they can degrade a complex organic compound, and they can transform it completely to water and carbon dioxide. So, complete, what we call, mineralization. They can also take metals, for example, and can change their properties so that they combine with different compounds and then make them less toxic. Of course, they can also make them more toxic. It depends on what the metal is and the particular conditions."

JM: One example is Chromium 6, a cancer-causing compound that made headlines with Erin Brockovich in the 1990s. Well, scientists can recruit microbes to convert Chromium 6by changing its chemistryto a non-toxic compound: Chromium 3. Now, it turns out that microbes may be the best way to clean up oil spills, and we'll hear more about that in future programs.

Listen to our complete interview with Terry Hazen at pulseplanet.com.

Pulse of the Planet is made possible by the National Science Foundation. I'm Jim Metzner.