Gemma Reguera at Michigan State University leads a team that found the normal digestive processes of a common type of bacteria – known as Geobacter – can reduce levels of uranium waste. She spoke with EarthSky:
They are called geobacter… which is Latin for bacteria from Earth. That tells you you find them everywhere.
She said these bacteria don’t make radioactive material less radioactive. But they do immobilize it by converting it into a solid that’s more easily contained – so we can remove it and store it safely. Her group found that, when Geobacter come into contact with free-floating uranium – uranium dissolved in water, let’s say – the bacteria zap the uranium with small blasts of electricity. They do this naturally, as part of their digestive processes. This electricity causes the uranium to mineralize – in other words, they turn the uranium into something like a rock. Radioactive material is much less potent in this solid form, Reguera said, and easier to remove from the environment. She said:
We know how to stimulate these organisms to be able to clean up contaminants at will.
She said her team is working on using these bacteria – and machines modeled after them – to have the capability of cleaning up radioactive sites across the world.
Reguera’s study appeared in the September 6, 2011 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Beth Lebwohl researches, writes and helps produce science content in audio and video formats for EarthSky. She is one of the authors on EarthSky.org, a script-writer for our podcasts, and helps host our English science podcasts in 90-second, 8-minute and 22-minute formats. Beth came to EarthSky in 2006 from the American Museum of Natural History's Department of Astrophysics, where she was surrounded by some of the greatest telescope-building, equation-wielding, code-writing physicists of our time. And they made her think . . . this science thing . . . it's pretty cool.