Pollution Remedies OLD News
Extracts from EEIN 1991-1994. Latest news is at the bottom. Provided by Eubios Ethics Institute , at http://eubios.info/index.html.
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Abbreviations for journals
The degradation of hydrocarbons is increasingly important for pollution control. A review is Leahy, J.G. & Colwell, R.R. (1990) "Microbial degradation of hydrocarbons in the environment", Microbiological Reviews 54: 305-315). The use of immobilised bacteria to break down nitrophenol, an organic pollutant, in streams can be quite effective (Heitkamp, M.A. et al. (1990) "Biodegradation of p-nitrophenol in an aqueous waste stream by immobilised bacteria", Appl. & Env. Microbiology 56: 2967-2973). This used naturally selected bacteria, that were isolated from polluted streams, not bacteria altered by laboratory gene manipulation. The environmentally selected toxin-degrading bacteria may be more efficient than laboratory generated GMOs, in the short-term future at least: Roy-Sole, M. "Microbes that eat toxins", Canadian Geographic (June 1990), 64-69.
The cheap production of biodegradable plastics has many potential benefits. An introductory paper describing the work at Argonne National Laboratory, USA is R.Coleman, "Biodegradable plastics from potato waste double savings to environment", Agricultural Engineering (Nov. 1990), 20-22. They are trying to make lactic acid based polymers, using waste from potatoes, cheese whey, and other foodstuff byproducts which are high in carbohydrate. The starch is converted into glucose, then lactic acid, then polymerised. The type of products which may be made include plastic waste bags, foodwrapping films, agricultural film used to stop weeds growing. It may be possible to make a degradable plastic that releases fertiliser as it decays, which would be suitable for agricultural use. A pilot factory is being constructed.
Recent attention in the Gulf war focused on the large oil spills. Bacteria may be added to the oil, together with fertiliser to aid their growth and speed up the breakdown of oil: Nature 349 (1991), 447. The use of bacteria to degrade oil has been used in several sites, one of the most extensive trials was the Exxon oil spill in Alaska (Environmental Science & Technology 25 (1991), 202-9). There was also the use of nonindigenous microorganisms and nutrients in the open sea and in a marsh area in the Gulf of Mexico, Texas coast. In both cases the oil has been cleared away (Biotechnology 9 (1991), 14). There should be further attention given to the use of microorganisms, including genetically modified organisms in cleaning oil spills. However, only the Alaskan study has been performed scientifically, the others were more emergency situations where there were no controls.
With genetic manipulation bacteria can be made to break down pollutants, but it is an important question as to whether such strains will survive and be effective in the environment. One study is N.C. McClure et al. (1991) "Survival and catabolic activity of natural and genetically engineered bacteria in a laboratory-scale activated sludge unit", Appl. & Env. Microbiology 57: 366-73. They found that in their system the naturally selected Pseudomonas bacteria took over the system and were the most important in the degradation of 3-chlorobenzoate even when the genetically manipulated strain was remaining.
Another use of genetically-engineered microorganisms (GEMs) is in the removal of metals from the environment, both for pollution and for mining (SG 132). A review on the background knowledge of the metal metabolism is M.Mergeay (1991) "Towards an understanding of the genetics of bacterial metal resistance", TIBTECH 9: 17-24. Metal resistance has been so far reported in seven genera of bacteria, and there are examples of plasmid-borne metal resistance to Antimony, Arsenic, Bismuth, Boron, Cadmium, Chromate, Cobalt, Copper, Lead, Mercury, Nickel, Silver, Thallium and Zinc, and a few others. The mechanism by which these metals are detoxified is partially understood for some. There are different genes involved in the accumulation of metals, and these are useful for mining, together with the incorporation of the detoxifying genes so that such bacteria can be used in more mining sites that have high levels of "toxic" metals.

A summary of the use of microbes to clean up the Alaskan oil spill is by P.H.Pritchard et al. (1991) "EPA's Alaska oil spill bioremediation project", Environmental Science & Technology 25: 372-9. The controlled use of fertiliser and added microbes demonstrated the enhanced oil degradation, and one would expect that this will be of wide use in attempts to clean up the oil pollution in the Arabian Gulf, on both coast and inland. The addition of nitrogen and phosphorous was very important in promoting the growth of the microorganisms that arose after the spill, and no adverse ecological effects of the fertiliser were found. One group of British Ecologists has suggested to the Arabian Gulf countries affected by the oil spill that the disturbance caused by removing the oil may be worse than if they let nature takes its course, especially the damaged coral reef systems, and the only safe action may be to add nitrates to the water to encourage microbial degradation; Nature 349 (1991), 731. Researchers at Michigan State University and Nagaoya University in Japan are collaborating on a project to develop oil-degrading bacteria using genetic engineering; Nature 350 (1991), 266.
A more unusual project being conducted in Japan is to use genetically engineered blue algae in a specially designed bioreactor to absorb carbon dioxide from air that is pumped through the reactor; Nature 350 (1991), 267. The reactor contains optical fibres to provide constant lighting to enable the algae to grow, and the project is aimed at being suitable to extract carbon dioxide from industrial emissions to reduce the amount entering the environment and therefore the greenhouse effect. To be useful in practice a large quantity of algae would need to be grown, and the algae are being genetically modified to produce useful byproducts.
Another potentially useful bacteria for reducing pollution is a bacteria that can reduce uranium, from the soluble (and dangerous form) to insoulble forms; D.R. Lovley et al. (1991) "Microbial reduction of Uranium", Nature 350: 413-6; NS (6 April 1991), 12.
Other papers of interest are A.Wasserfallen et al. (1991) "A Pseudomonas putida strain able to degrade M-toluate in the presence of 3-chlorocatechol", Biotechnology 9: 296-8. This strain will be useful in industrial sites containing both chemicals. B.Lee et al. (1991) "Biodegradation of degradable plastic polyethylene by Phanerochaete and Streptomyces species", Applied & Environmental Microbiology 57: 707-11. These are important for the degradation of plastics, and conditions affecting the rate of degradation were investigated.

A pollution problem in Eastern Europe is the inefficient cars, often with two-stroke engines. In Germany they are called Trabis, and the problem is no longer the exhaust of them but on how to dispose of the dumped car bodies in formerly East Germany. There are about two million cars to be scrapped, but there bodies are made of unrecyclable and unburnable plastic (650kg per car). An East Berlin biotechnology company has patents on a fungi, Penicillium jantinellum that can break down the cellulose base, and they have been isolating other microorganisms to break down the phenol formaldehyde resins; Nature 350: 453; Science 252: 205. The microorganisms have been isolated from polluted sites in Germany, where these compounds are made. Further improvements may be made using genetic engineering. The degradation of the cars will begin with mechanical disruption, followed by bacterial and fungal action, to more basic molecules that can be combusted without creating bad pollutants.
The clean up data from the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska remains largely secret, under silence imposed by the Alaskan district attorney so that it can be used in the court case; Science 252: 772-3. The secrecy is supposed to aid the state, in the legal case, yet it is indirectly damaging the environment further because the best method for cleaning up the oil spill cannot be disclosed. Also the lack of scientific discussion that the ban on data release brings, affects the development of general oil spill clean up procedures. See also comments on oil removal in NS (20 April 1991), 4, 8.
The details of the process of biodegradation in a natural aquifer are described in E.L.Madsen et al., "In situ biodegradation: Microbiological patterns in a contaminated aquifer", Science 252: 830-3. The contamination came from buried coal tar. Samples around the aquifer were taken of microorganisms, and carbon dioxide release from radio-labelled napthalene, phenanthrene and p- hydroxybenzoate was measured. Also relating to the influence of geological and hydrological properties of a natural site, and discussing there relation to microorganisms see H.W.Lawson et al., "Waterborne outbreak of Norwalk virus gastroenteritis at a southwest US resort: role of geological formations in contamination of well water", Lancet 337: 1200-4. This is also related to the area of organisms survival after release.
The use of whole ecosystems as methods of cleaning up pollution is discussed in K.A.Baker et al., "Designing wetlands for controlling coal mine drainage: an ecologic-economic modelling approach", Ecological Economics 3: 1-24. It looks at the costs and efficiencies of wetlands for removing iron, and considers the costs of the system. Of course it does not include the benefits for biodiversity of having a wetland versus alternative pollution removal systems.
The successful use of bacteria in a water clean up plant in Sydney is described in NS (4 May 1991), 24. It contains tethered bacteria, thus they are immobilised in the bioreactor, providing very good results.

The US EPA is increasing its efforts for the use of bioremediation of oil spills; Biotechnology 9: 693. They want to use bioremediation not only for oil but also for landbased hazardous waste sites. The OTA has also released a report favourable for the use of bioremediation; Bioremediation for Marine Oil Spills (OTA-BP-070, May 1991); Science 252: 1488.
Not on the pollution process, but concerning oil, is the trials of bacteria to generate acid in carbonate oil reservoirs, so that the oil can be extracted from the reservoir; Biotechnology 9: 502. Trials have been performed in the UK and in Texas.
The structure of the detoxification catalyst mercuric ion reductase from Bacillus is described in Nature 352: 168-72.

Microbes can be used to convert poor quality coals into higher quality coals which can be burned with less pollution, and a review on this is B.D. Faison, "Microbial conversions of low rank coals", Biotechnology 9 : 951-6. Chemicals can also be extracted which are industrially useful.
A short review on the use and potential for use of biomass as an energy source see Nature 353; 11-2. On the potential use of poor soils in the Philippines as sites for plantations of trees for use as biomass in energy production see Bioresource Technology 36: 101-11.
There are plans to deliberately spill oil in Alaskan ice-fields to test the clean up of the oil using fire; but as would be expected there is opposition! Science 253: 1203-4. It would seem better for such researchers to wait for a real spill, as there is sure to be more, but researchers make the point that if there was a huge oil spill currently people do not know how to clean it up in ice fields. On the clean-up of the Exxon Alaskan oil spill, see a letter on bioassays used to assay the mutagens in the oil, and encouraging the use of bioremediation; Nature 353: 24-5. See also J.E. Linstrom et al., "Microbial populations and hydrocarbon biodegradation potentials in fertilised shoreline sediments affected by the T/V Exxon Valdez oil spill", Applied & Env. Microbiology 57: 2514-22. Related, see a review of a new journal Biodegradation , eds. R.S.Hanson et al., (Kluwer 1990+, US$100 per year) in Nature 353: 480-1; E.L. Madsen, "Determining in situ biodegradation", EST 25: 1662-73.

The US EPA seems to be promoting the use of bioremediation, though there is still little experience; Biotechnology 9: 1034. There are various companies trying to market biodegradation products, and a 62 member Washington-based Applied BioTreatment Association estimates the market will be US$200 million by 1996. Lets hope the real environmental benefits are much greater by then. Other topics are also discussed. On the use of enzymes to detoxify soil see a review, P. Nannipieri & J.-M. Bollag, "Use of enzymes to detoxify pesticide-contaminated soils and waters", J. Environmental Quality 20: 510-7. This research is still at an early stage, the enzyme used was parathion hydroxylase, and enzymes were immobilised.
A strategy for the removal of heavy metals is in D. Couillard et al., "Bacterial leaching of heavy metals from aerobic sludge", Bioresource Technology 36: 293-302. On cadmium uptake in a Basidomycetes see Biotechnology Letters 13: 701-4. Bacterial copper resistance determinants is discussed in Applied & Environmental Microbiology 57: 3079-85.
On the use of bioenergy see D.O. Hall et al., "Cooling the greenhouse with bioenergy", Nature 353: 11-2. It talks about the advantages of replacing fossil fuels with renewable fuels, plant matter, to avoid net build up of carbon dioxide. Renewable energy is discussed in Nature 354: 344-5. The use of nitrogen in agriculture and atmospheric pollution is discussed in A.R. Mosier & D.S. Schimel, "Influence of agricultural nitrogen on atmospheric methane and nitrous oxide", Chemistry & Industry (2 Dec 1991), 874-7.

The US EPA seems to be promoting the use of bioremediation, also there is a new international oil spoil response treaty proposed by the USA; EST 26: 11. On research needs in bioremediation see EST 25 (1991), 1972-3.
The responses of plants to increased CO2 levels are discussed in F.A. Bazza & E.D. Fajer, "Plant life in a CO2-rich world", SA (Jan 1991), 18-24. Although people think that increased CO2 levels may allow more plant growth, such increased levels will not always benefit plants.
The use of microbes for mining is discussed in NS (4 Jan 1991), 17-9. Volkswagon is intending to improve the recycling of automobiles; SA (Jan 1991), 118-9. Germany may impose the condition that car manufacturers must dispose of the old cars, this would ease the environmental dumping of cars that occurs in many countries in addition to the volume of waste.
A criticism of environmentalists that are based in rich industrialised countries by people in the developing countries, that such "Greenies" are following the tradition of Western colonialism and that they do not understand the real problems is in NS (1 Feb 1991), 55-6. On the greening of environmental labels see EST 25 (1991), 1974-5.

An editorial on the remediation of hazardous waste sites in the USA, which will be a costly business, is in Science 255: 901. The toxic waste sites in Eastern Europe need urgent remediation; Science 255: 1357. Three book reviews on hazardous waste sites are in Science 255: 1586-7; see also JAMA 267: 1180, 2; EST 26: 432-8. The effects of PCBs on marine life are being reexamined, and it may prove to be worse than thought; Science 255: 798-9. A proposal to study deep ocean dumping of sewage sludge off the USA is discussed in SA (Feb 1991), 14-5. New US pollution laws are discussed in SA (April 1992), 109-110. A series of papers on the topic of industrial ecology, presented at a May 1991 conference, are in PNAS 89: 793-884.
The enhancement of oil recovery by the use of bacteria is described in J. General Microbiology 138: 647-55.

The extent to which bioremediation will be useful is questioned in a report, Doreen Stabinsky,The Overselling of Bioremediation, summarised in geneWATCH 8: 1, 7-9. On the positive side of bioremediation reports on the clean up of the Exxon Valdez oil spill are in Biotechnology 10: 496; Science 256: 1134.

The environmental sustainablity of biotechnology is discussed in Ag Bioethics Forum 4: 2-6. The bioconversion of waste paper to ethanol is suggested as a means to produce 16% of North American gasoline in Process Biochemistry 27: 239-45.
Bioremediation is to be praised, but many companies are investing in it for commercial motives, and other have long been involved. The development of bioremediation industry has been estimated to be worth US$60 million this year, but this figure ignores the US$30+ billion market of waste water treatment facilities; GEN 12(10), 4,11. A list of companies developing biotech tests for environmental use is in GEN 12(7), 11, 25. The use of bioremediation for cleaning oil spills is questioned in Science 257: 320-1. So is the proposed trial of burning an oil spill, which is no longer being considered following EPA objections; Science 257: 315. A new method using photochemical catalysis is claimed to be best for open ocean spills; Nature 358: 453-4.

The results of the Gulf War pollution on the marine areas are presented in J.W. Readman et al., "Oil and combustion-product contamination of the Gulf marine environment following the war", Nature 358: 662-5. Their study was made in mid-1991, and the results suggest that the oil degraded quickly and the effects were not as bad as expected. Research on the effects of the Exxon Valdez oil spill may be extended, but less projects are forthcoming; NS (26 Sept 1992), 7. By February 1993 the decisions on how to spend the rest of the US$1 billion award money (an out of court settlement from Exxon) will be made. So far only US$244 million has been spend; NS (17 Oct 1992), 10. Critics say that the money should have been spent to buy up more forests to protect further areas of Alaska from exploitation, but some money has even gone back to Exxon to reimburse them for clean up costs they had soon after the disaster. The general question of how to assess contamination in aquatic sediments is discussed in papers in EST 26: 1862-75. Also related to marine health are sporadic pollution events where particular dinoflagellate red algae bloom. These algae have neurotoxins, such as brevetoxin, which can kill animals; Science 257: 1476-7.
The use of trees for bioremediation of old slag heaps, from Bulgaria, is in NS (19 Sept 1992), 14-5. Enzymes may also be useful, see J.-M. Bollag, "Decontaminating soil with enzymes. An in situ method using phenolic and anilinic compounds", EST 26: 1876-8. The use of a biosurfactant is reported in Y. Zhang & R.M. Miller, "Enhanced octadecane dispersion and biodegradation by a Pseudomonas rhamnolipid surfactant (biosurfactant)", AEM 58: 3276-82. The use of genetic engineering to improve bacteria for bioremediation is reported in K. Nusslein et al., "Expression and transfer of engineered catabolic pathways harboured by Pseudomonas spp. introduced into activated sludge microcosms", AEM 58: 3380-6.

A look at the industry being built on the use of bioremediation technology is in GEN (15 Oct 1992),4-5, 20. There are now 378 firms in the USA with an interest. Some technological advances in bioremediation are discussed in GEN (15 Oct 1992), 6-11. It discusses several new trials on conversion of organic molecules by microorganisms, and bioremediation in Eastern Europe. A letter on the Alaskan Exxon Valdez bioremediation study is in Science 258: 874. The new Spanish oil spill has presented another urgent need for bioremediation.

The concept of industrial ecology is being introduced to cover the use of biotechnology to protect the environment; Biotechnology 10 (1992), 1522. An experimental test of applications of inorganic nutrients, biphenyl and oxygen to sediments from the Hudson River, New York, has found that this stimulated the degradation of PCBs by indigenous strains of bacteria by 37-55%; Science 259: 503-7. Articles on oil spills, and how to clean them up or avoid them in the future are in NS (16 Jan 1993), 4-5, (30 Jan 1993), 11-3, 24-5. A solar aquatic sewage treatment system is described in EST 27: 34-7.

The recent oil spill in the Shetland Islands off the UK has shown the power of naturally occuring organisms to disperse and break down oil, given the right physical conditions; Time (25 Jan 1993), 36-7; Biotechnology 11: 425. Additional pieces of luck were that it was an offseason for birds. After the Gulf war, the oil spills were enormous, but due to the stoppage in tanker traffic, the water has now become cleaner than before the war. The Exxon Valdez disaster in Alaska however, still is having bad effects on marine life, and Exxon researchers were gagged from reporting their findings from a recent meeting; NS (13 Feb 1993), 5-6. A review of bioremediation research is Biotechnology 11: 460-3, and in the US EPA p. 442-3. A naturally occuring fungi which degrades hydrocarbons isolated from Lagos Lagoon is reported in Letters in Appl. Microbiology 16: 118.

In Texas a company Envirogen is field testing PCB-degrading bacteria (naturally occuring); GEN (1 Jun), 25. A meeting of the American Academy of Microbiology last year concluded that there will be many further applications of bioremediation ; GEN (1 May 1993), 16. However, there is still a lack of research funding. Recently there has been greater research on surfactants to breakdown hydrocarbons and to deliver microbes to hard-to-reach regions; GEN (1 Jun), 1, 18-9. See also C&I (1 Feb 1993), 89-90.
The contrast between the two stories coming from Exxon Valdez disaster scientists (company versus government) is discussed in NS (8 May 1993), 4; (22 May 1993), 11-3. On restoring hazardous waste sites: EST 27: 1022-5, Environment 35 (1), 3-5, 42; AJPH 83: 752-4.
Molecular biology techniques are being used more generally to look at environmental risk assessment; GEN (1 Jun), 3, 35.
An article reviewing the use of electric fields to remove contaminants from soils is in Science 260: 498-503. The electric current moves ions in the liquid water pahse allowing focusing of pollutants. The use of a plasma torch to transmute waste into harmless slag material is being researched as another way to detoxify waste areas; SA (May 1993), 83.
The planting of halophytes (plants who can grow in salty ground/water) to remove carbon from the atmosphere is reviewed in Environment 34 (1992), 40-3. A review of primary production of the planet in changed environmental conditions is J.M. Melillo et al.,"Global climate change and terrestrial net primatry production", Nature 363: 234-40, 209-10.

The use of microbes to remove sulfur from crude oil to make it more environmentally "clean" is increasing, Biotechnology 11: 782.
The hazardous waste trade is discussed in EST 27: 1460; and toxic chemical releases, in EST 27: 1465-6. Dumping sewage at sea has also been scientifically shown to be bad, Science 261: 423. The threat from the Russian nuclear submarines dumped in the sea is under debate, Science 260: 1881.

The commercial development of biotreatment is growing from a market of about US$200 million annually, at about 40% per year; Biotechnology 11: 973-4. A review of bioreclamation is in EST 27: 1711-6. A summary of the clean up programs needed in US Dept. of Defense sites is in EST 27: 1708.

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