Bioremediation: Microorganisms and Eco-Friendly Decontamination

Sarah Ninan, Grade 11

Each year, thousands of technological advancements are made to further progress our nations socially and economically (1). In a constantly adapting world, there is a consistent demand for new and more appropriate technology to fit the shifting needs of the people (2). Still, the process of mass manufacturing fresh pieces of technology tends to have a negative impact on the environment as a whole, often contributing to frequent exploitation of natural resources as well as leading to harmful consequences such as oil spills, water contaminations, and more (3). These consequences not only negatively impact the environment, but also tend to have ramifications on the health of the population, with factors like air pollution, over-extraction and more; all of these ramifications threaten to compromise humanity’s way of life (3).  Engineers play an important role in combating or preventing these harmful consequences by discovering more eco-friendly alternatives to the ineffective processes or products we use, so that nations can continue to develop to meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs (1). Hence why, when met with issues like water and soil contamination, civil and environmental engineers designed a process known as bioremediation (4).

Bioremediation is a technology used on polluted environments which restores and prevents further pollutants in the initial setting (4). In this process, microorganisms, which are sometimes genetically engineered, are used to detoxify artificially contaminated soils or groundwater (4). Using those microorganisms to degrade contaminants found in polluted soils is considered one of the more sustainable methods of pollution control technology.  There are several different types of soil contaminants, one of the most well-known types being petroleum (5). Petroleum has a variety of uses, from fuel, electricity, lubricants and more, and can be found in nearly every product we use (4). Continual exposure to petroleum that has contaminated our water or soil can lead to several health issues, for humans and the environment alike (5). Petroleum is composed of highly mobile hydrocarbons, meaning that it has a greater potential of being transported into drinking water or inhaled in fumes when found in soil (5). Additionally, petroleum’s toxic components turn arable land into poor soils and can completely destroy the quality of that land (4). One of the many ways bioremediation can be utilized is to combat issues caused by petroleum contamination.

In a study conducted in Nigeria’s Landmark University, Dr. Olamide Olawale and her colleagues examined how microorganisms found in cow and poultry feces play a part in the degradation of petroleum in contaminated soil (4). They assessed four groups of contaminated soils: one with only cow dung mixed in; one with only poultry dung mixed in; one with both cow dung and poultry dung mixed in; and finally, the control group, which had only the contaminated soil with no other substances mixed with it (4). From these four groups, they measured which of these would see the greatest percentage of petrol removal. From the conducted experiment, they were able to find that organisms such as Bacillus and E. Coli were able to remove over 90% of the petrol from the samples they were found in. Additionally, samples with 2.5 grams of cow dung and 5.0 grams of poultry dung resulted in almost 96% removal of the petrol. All of this data only further suggests that bioremediation is one of the safest, most cost efficient ways to clean polluted soil.(4).

Bioremediation isn’t limited to helping clean polluted soil, and has been used to treat polluted water as well. Wastewater, polluted runoff, and oil spills in large bodies of water, are just a few examples of contaminated water that bioremediation has been used to treat.. In rapidly industrializing countries, such as certain parts of India, there has been a vast increase of heavy metal pollution occurring from mining, agricultural fields, sewage sludge, waste treatment plants and more (6). Heavy metals are non-biodegradable, making them a threat to the environment, and, when consumed, hazardous to human health. When heavy metal pollutants began to be found in drinking water and the water used in parts of India’s irrigation systems, Dr. Meena Kapahi and her team at Rachna International Institute of Research and Studies in Faridabad, India, wrote a review article discussing several possible bioremediation methods to help purify their water (6) . In this article, they examine a variety of ways in which microorganisms could play a part in mobilization or immobilization of heavy metals. When it comes to cleansing contaminated water, bioremediation is not the only technology that could be used to do so. But, as Dr. Kapahi explains in the article, conventional techniques, like absorptions, electro-dialysis and more, have a variety of limitations (6). Specific conventional methods, like using the ion exchange process, are non-specific and pH sensitive, and overall, conventional ways of removing heavy metal pollutants are often costly, high-energy, slow, inefficient, and can sometimes even generate contaminated sludge that requires careful disposal, which is often even more expensive (6). Ultimately, these methods are not ideal, especially in developing countries. Therefore, it is no surprise that using biological agents, which are far more cost efficient and eco-friendly, for heavy metal removal is seen as a much more appealing alternative to those conventional methods (6).

Bioremediation is only one of the many examples of modern technology used to help treat damage to our environment without having an overall negative long-term impact. But there are still certain concerns that members of the scientific community express when discussing bioremediation. One concern is that bioremediation may mostly immobilize, rather than completely remediate contamination. Others debate the possible risks of adding genetically modified organisms to a new environment (6). Still, bioremediation is a technology that has the potential to change the way humans manage our waste and keep land clean, and has already progressed decontamination processes in a number of ways. Due to its severe cost-effectiveness, it continues to be further studied and advanced to see ways that it could be massively improved and used to benefit both developed and developing countries.

Bibliography

[1] “Why does technology matter?” UN Environment Programme. Accessed July 13, 2020. https://www.unenvironment.org/explore-topics/technology/why-does-technology-matter.

[2] Anadon, Laura Diaz, Gabriel Chan, Alicia G. Harley, Kira Matus, Suerie Moon, Sharmila L. Murthy, and William C. Clark. “Making Technological Innovation Work for Sustainable Development.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 113, no. 35 (August 12, 2016): 9682-90. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1525004113.

[3] Iwuji, C. C., O. C. Okeke, B. C. Ezenwoke, C. C. Amadi, and H. Nwachukwu. “Earth Resources Exploitation and Sustainable Development: Geological and Engineering Perspectives.” Engineering 08, no. 01 (2016): 21-33. https://doi.org/10.4236/eng.2016.81003.

[4] Olawale, O., K. S. Obayomi, S. O. Dahunsi, and O. Folarin. “Bioremediation of Artificially Contaminated Soil with Petroleum Using Animal Waste: Cow and Poultry Dung.” Cogent Engineering 7, no. 1 (January 27, 2020). https://doi.org/10.1080/23311916.2020.1721409.

[5] “What are soil contaminants?” Soil Science Society of America. Accessed July 14,
     2020. https://www.soils.org/about-soils/contaminants.

[6] Kapahi, Meena, and Sarita Sachdeva. “Bioremediation Options for Heavy Metal
     Pollution.” Journal of Health and Pollution 9, no. 24 (December 2019):
     191203. https://doi.org/10.5696/2156-9614-9.24.191203.
 

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