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

Emerging Science Note/Multi-talented Bacteria

Air Date: Week of

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Living on Earth's Jennifer Chu reports on pollution-fighting bacteria that can also generate electricity.


CURWOOD: Just ahead, the hunt for a tiger that's not really a tiger, and may not even exist anymore. First this note on emerging science from Jennifer Chu.


CHU: Think bacteria and you probably think malicious agents of disease. But researchers at the Medical University of South Carolina say think again. They’ve found a bacterium capable of cleaning up pollution and generating electricity at the same time. The bacterium is commonly found in freshwater ponds, and scientists say it’s not the first time bacteria has been identified as a power source.

But what makes this microorganism special is its ability to deactivate some of the most toxic groundwater pollutants, including industrial solvents used in plastic production, by de-chlorinating them. These are also the first known electricity-producers that form spores, dormant bacteria which need no water or oxygen and are resistant to heat and radiation. That makes them useful in the noxious environments where pollutants are often found. And that’s not all. These bacteria can also cause some heavy metals found in water to precipitate back into solid form, making them easier to remove.

The researchers envision a day when bacteria will be used to efficiently treat wastewater while generating power. But don’t cancel your electric service just yet; right now the bacteria produce relatively small amounts of electricity. It would take trillions of bacteria to power a 60-watt light bulb. That’s this week’s note on emerging science, I’m Jennifer Chu.



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