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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Technology Note

Air Date: Week of

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Living on Earth’s Cynthia Graber reports on the discovery of a bacteria that can digest the pollutant benzene.


CURWOOD: Just ahead, it's not good news from Libby, Montana. More people may have been exposed to deadly asbestos contamination. First, this technology note from Cynthia Graber.

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GRABER: Benzene is a cancer-causing chemical found in oil and gasoline, and used in many chemical processes. It leaches into the environment primarily from oil spills and gasoline tank leaks. Once there, it doesn't break down naturally. Cleanup of these polluted sites sometimes involves using bacteria that can digest benzene. The microbes need oxygen to do this, but there's a hitch: many times the soil near a spill lacks oxygen. Pumping oxygen into the soil to get these bacteria working is extremely expensive and difficult. Now, for the first time, scientists have discovered two bacteria that don't need oxygen to make a meal of benzene. No one knows exactly how they do this, but researchers do know the bacteria actually thrive on the pollutant. And after they finish eating, the only thing left is carbon dioxide. This discovery points the way to a possible new tool for cleanup of polluted sites, and researchers say they'll be looking at similar strains of bacteria to find out what other pollutants they might find appetizing. That's this week's technology note. I'm Cynthia Graber.

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CURWOOD: And you're listening to Living on Earth.

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