Waste is an inevitable bi-product of human life, industry, and agriculture. One of the scientific challenges we face as a society is managing that waste and minimizing its deleterious effects on the environment that we depend upon for current and future sustenance. This ecosystem management increasingly involves the utilization of life science processes whereby good bacteria eat the unwanted effluent and render it neutral or even beneficial through an organically bioactive treatment system. This process is called bioremediation, in contrast to chemical sterilization systems (e.g. chlorination) that can cause problems downstream.
Anyone who has ever had a septic tank on their property understands that this very effective waste disposal system only works if the bugs are happy and active. Yogurt eaters and beer connoisseurs understand the importance of this bioactivity as well. And researchers in many fields today are turning to bioremediation to try and restore tainted water systems as well as clean up huge industrial accidents like the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.
In the case of Deepwater, biogeochemist David Valentine at the University of California Santa Barbara began studying the microbial response to the spill just after it occurred, with funding by the NSF. A Scientific American article from 2010 references Valentine and explains nicely how bacteria were the first and best soldiers marshaled to clean up the oil. When Valentine reported back in early 2011 that bacterial blooms seemed to have consumed almost all of the methane from methane plumes generated by the wells, the NSF tasked him once again to explain how that could be the case, which initiated a more detailed study of the bacterial response that has just been published. [Photo by Reuters, courtesy of the NY Times]
Scientists are studying these helpful bacteria and in some cases trying to improve upon them with genetic engineering, though so far they have not been able to outperform Nature's own bugs. If you consider the fact that the microbes already out there have developed evolutionarily to target and exploit man-made and naturally-produced food opportunities in an experiment more complex and longterm than any current lab project, it's easy to understand how some bioremediation enthusiasts are simply asking the question: How would Nature deal with this problem?
In his recently-published book, Hybrid Nature, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign professor of urban and regional planning Daniel Schneider talks about biological sewage treatment systems as hybrid ecosystems, or industrial ecosystems, which have natural and man-made qualities and are continually evolving. Of course waste treatment isn't a human invention: there is only so much matter on the planet, and reworking it efficiently (think of compost) is what Nature has evolved to do. But since we've created these new and diverse hybrid ecosystems rather quickly, it may fall to scientists to speed up, facilitate, or optimize the biological response. Expect to hear the term "bioremediation" more and more often, and to see laboratory life scientists working with social scientists (and urban planners) to try and do for the environment what stem cell researchers are attempting to do for the human body: help it to fix itself.
Biotechnology Calendar, Inc. is pleased to offer networking opportunities for bioresearch scientists and laboratory equipment suppliers on both of the research campuses referenced in this blog. In business for 19 years, we hold both premium and streamlined trade show events across the United States to bring laboratory solutions and the latest technology to life science researchers in a convenient, accessible, and professional environment. See our 2012 calendar and note these shows in particular: