Posted: 26 Sep 2011 10:00 AM PDT
We have become obsessed with eliminating bacteria, attacking with gels and wipes the microbes we associate with infection, illness and death. But not only are many types of bacteria actually helpful, some strains may hold the key to fighting global warming, cleaning up pollution, breaking down plastic and even developing a cure for cancer. These 12 amazing discoveries demonstrate the many ways in which microscopic organisms help maintain the health of our own bodies and the entire planet.
Gulf Oil Spill Gases Eaten by Bacteria
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Certain types of bacteria can actually clean up troublesome environmental pollutants like spilled petroleum. In fact, a specific strain called Alcanivorax drastically increases in population when an oil spill provides them with large amounts of food, so that they’re able to remove much of the oil. They’re at work on the Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico right now, and while they certainly can’t undo the vast damage that has been done to this region as a result, they definitely provide a beneficial effect.
Bacteria Eat Pollution and Generate Electricity
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Bacteria with tiny wire-like appendages called nanowires not only digest toxic waste – including PCBs and chemical solvents – they produce electricitywhile they’re at it. One type in particular, called Shewanella, is a deep-sea bacteria that grows these oxygen-seeking nanowires when placed in low-oxygen environments. Researchers discovered that when the microbes’ nanowires are pricked with platinum electrodes, they can carry a current. If these capabilities can be harnessed effectively, they could one day be used in sewage treatment plants to simultaneously digest waste and power the facilities.
Geobacter Consume Radioactive Contamination
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The nanowires grown by certain types of bacteria can also be used to immobilize harmful materials – like uranium – and keep them from spreading. A research team at Michigan State University has learned that Geobacter bacteria, which is found naturally in soil, essentially electroplates uranium, rendering it insoluble so it can’t dissolve and contaminate groundwater. These bacteria can be brought into uranium contamination sites like mines and nuclear plants in order to contain the radiation, potentially limiting the disastrous consequences of these types of spills.
Plastic-Eating Bacteria Breaks Down Bags
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Non-biodegradable and far too ubiquitous on this planet, plastic becomes a big problem when it comes to disposal. But in 2008, a Canadian student carried out a truly amazing science experiment in which bacteria were able to consume plastic. Since then, research teams have been working on developing this ability and using it to our benefit. A professor at the University of Dublin got the bacteria to metabolize cooked-down plastic bottles into a new type of plastic that’s actually biodegradable.
Earlier this year, scientists discovered that bacteria are already breaking down plastic debris in the world’s oceans on their own, though they’re not yet sure whether this will have a positive or negative effect on the environment. Items like fishing line and plastic bags are devoured by these bacteria; the problem is that the waste that the bacteria then produce could potentially be harmful to ocean ecosystems as it travels up the food chain.
Nylon-Eating Bacteria Clean Up Factory Waste
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We count on a polymer called Nylon 6 for all kinds of everyday uses like toothbrushes, surgical sutures, ropes, hosiery and strings for instruments like violins. The manufacture of this material produces toxic byproducts that get carried out in waste water – but – you guessed it – there’s a bacterium for that, too. Flavobacterium actually evolved to produce special enzymes to digest these byproducts that they didn’t have previously, and that aren’t seen in similar bacterial strains.
In fact, the ability to produce these enzymes in order to consume a material that didn’t even exist prior to the invention of nylon in 1935 is often used as evidence against the theory of creationism, which denies that any new information can be added to a genome by mutation.
Metabolizing Methane, A Greenhouse Gas
(images via: livescience)
One of the most dangerous greenhouse gases, methane is produced by all sorts of industrial and natural processes, including the decomposition of our own waste and that of livestock. Scientists fighting global warming are struggling to find ways to control the effects of methane, but one solution could come from a simple single-celled microorganism. Some types of bacteria use copper from the environment to metabolize methane, eliminating both the greenhouse gas and toxic heavy metals all at once.
Researchers are still trying to determine how to use this in real-world applications, but some options may include venting methane emissions through filters of these bacteria. What’s more, after eating the methane, the bacteria turn it into methanol – so we can harvest their waste for use as fuel.
Turning Newspapers into Car Fuel
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Microbes named T-103, found in animal waste, can produce the biofuel butanol by eating paper. Tulane University developed a method for growing the cellulose-consuming microbes so they can produce fuel in the presence of oxygen, which is lethal to other butanol-producing bacteria. This could make the whole fuel production process far less expensive and thus more potentially applicable in the real world. The researchers say that butanol produces more energy than ethanol, which is produced from corn sugar, and doesn’t require engine modifications. It can also be carried through existing fuel pipelines.
Soil-Dwelling Bacteria Kills Cancer
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Cancer and bacteria don’t go well together – at least, when you’re talking about immune response. But one type of bacteria, called Clostridium sporogenes, may actually be used to deliver drugs in cancer therapy thanks to its ability to target tumors. Professor Nigel Minton of the University of Nottingham has learned that C. sporogenes will only grow in oxygen-depleted environments – like the center of solid tumors. When injected into a tumor log with cancer drugs, the bacteria can help the drugs kill the tumor cells without affecting healthy tissue. Researchers expect to have a streamlined strain developed for use in a clinical trial by 2013.
Panda Poop Bacteria Makes Biofuel
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“Who would have guessed that ‘panda poop’ might help solve one of the major hurdles to producing biofuels, which is optimizing the breakdown of the raw plant materials used to make the fuels?” says Ashli Brown, Ph.D., co-author of a study on how bacteria in panda feces can break down a super-tough plant material known as lignocellulose. This discovery could speed up development of plant-based biofuels that don’t rely on food crops. Several types of digestive bacteria found in the panda feces are similar to those found in termites, which of course are pros at digesting wood.
This doesn’t necessarily mean that panda waste will suddenly be in demand for the production of biofuels – that would probably be a lost cause, given the extremely precarious status of the species. The bacteria that have been identified for their cellulose-processing abilities will be isolated and grown on a commercial scale. However, it does prove how important biodiversity really is, and that many species around the world may have more to offer than we realize.
Turning Human Waste into Rocket Fuel
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Pandas aren’t the only species whose waste may hold the key to producing fuel. With the help of the bacteria Brocadia anammoxidans, human sewage could be transformed into hydrazine, better known as rocket fuel. The bacteria naturally consume ammonia and produce hydrazine in the process. Until their discovery, scientists thought that hydrazine was only a man-made substance. However, this is less of a boon to NASA than it is to sewage treatment plants. In standard plants, waste-eating bacteria require oxygen to be pumped in with power-chugging equipment, so this development could save a lot of money.
Sulphur-Eating Bacteria Reduce Acid Run-Off
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When sulphur in mine tailings from mining operations react with water and oxygen, they produce toxic sulphuric acid, a major environmental problem which may also be contributing to climate change. Researchers at McMaster University found that two species of bacteria isolated from a mine tailings pond in northern Ontario work together to use sulphur as an energy source, producing and consuming each other’s sulphur-containing waste in a cycle that reduces the amount of toxic runoff Acid Mine Drainage (AMD). This runoff dissolves carbonate rocks and releases CO2, worsening climate change, so the more it is reduced, the less carbon dioxide gas is released into the atmosphere.
Probiotic Bacteria That Treat Depression & Anxiety
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We already know that beneficial bacteria play an incredibly important role in our own biology, helping with everything from dental health to digestion. But probiotic bacteria may even alter brain neurochemistry, helping to treat anxiety and depression-related disorders. Researchers at McMaster University in Canada and University College Cork in Ireland demonstratedthat mice fed with the probiotic Lactobacillus rhamnosus JB-1 showed a marked decrease in stress, anxiety and depression-related behaviors as well as lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol. This opens the door to potential microbial-based treatments for psychiatric disorders.
Fuel’s Gold: 10 More Unusual Alternative Energy Sources
Mankind’s quest for energy has successively centered on wood, coal and oil though these fuels are slowly giving way to nuclear, wind and geothermal power sources. Even newer fuels have sparked alternatives, however, and what today seems odd and impractical may someday be commonplace. These 10 unusual alternative energy sources show real hope that goes beyond the usual hype.
Used Adult Diapers
(image via: InventorSpot)
Adult diapers – they’re more common than you think, especially in Japan where the average population is aging rapidly and the national output of used adult diapers has soared past the 5 billion mark. A company called Super Faiths thinks there’s a better use for used adult diapers than simply burying them – why not burn them as fuel?
The SFD Recycle System pulverizes and sterilizes used adult diapers, then forms them into pellets suitable for fueling large biomass boilers. The machines are rather large and are designed to process large numbers of adult diapers, not a problem because the expected users are large hospitals and retirement homes.
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Microbial fuel cells (MFCs) are being developed by a number of researchers who seek to employ specialized bacteria to break down waste products of various types and, in the process of doing so, create energy that can be stored for future use. A team of British researchers is working with urine (from either Man or beast) as a medium, explaining that “Urine is chemically very active, rich in nitrogen and has compounds such as urea, chloride, potassium and bilirubin which make it very good for the microbial fuel cells.”
Organizations such as NASA have taken specific interest in MFCs that use urine and other, er, related wastes to produce energy as such substances would tend to either accumulate on board a spacecraft or would have to be ejected into space. Remember that the next time you wish upon a “star”.
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You’ve heard that drinking and driving doesn’t mix, but don’t tellSvensk Biogas AB. The Swedish biogas company is partnering with the Scandinavian nation’s customs service to process 185,000 gallons of seized smuggled alcohol seized by the customs service last year into enough biogas to power over 1,000 buses and trucks – even a train (above). “We used to just pour it down the drain, but because of the increased volumes we had to look around for new solutions,” said Swedish customs spokeswoman Ingrid Jerlebrink. With the new partnership agreement in place, “We pump it into a big tank that we jokingly call ‘the giant cocktail’ and then a truck just comes and picks it up.”
The Svensk Biogas AB plant in Linkoping, located 125 miles southwest of Stockholm, heats the confiscated booze and converts into biogas. One quart of pure alcohol is required to produce about a tenth of a gallon of biogas, and according to Carl Lilliehook, head of Svensk Biogas AB, “It is good business, because the material to make it is free.”
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Power to the people? How about power FROM the people! A number of initiatives currently being pursued look to harness the kinetic energy created – and wasted – by groups of people performing energetic tasks. One project already in place in Tokyo, Japan, usespiezoelectric floor pads positioned where pedestrian commuters are more likely to tread: outside train stations and beneath ticket turnstiles, for instance.
Commuters can be somewhat tired and listless, but there are other places where people expend a lot of energy and have fun doing it – like dancing and working out. The former takes place at Club Watt in Rotterdam, The Netherlands, which calls itself “The World’s First Sustainable Dance Club.” The club’s dance floor features embedded LEDs that are powered by kinetic energy generated by dancers. Bee Gees, met BTUs. The latter occurs at so-called “green gyms” likeGreen Revolution, where a group cycling class with 20 bikes can generate up to 3.6 megawatts of renewable electrical energy annually – more than enough to pedal, er, peddle elsewhere.
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How fortunate we would be if it were possible to drink seawater AND use it as fuel. Well surprisingly enough, one of those wishes might soon be answered and grab a beer because it’s not the first. Leukemia patient and researcher John Kanzius has been experimenting with a new cancer-fighting technique that destroys cancer-causing agents through the use of radio waves.
Kanzius noted that his radio-frequency generator broke the water molecules in the seawater into their component elements: hydrogen and oxygen, and as anyone familiar with the 1937 Hindenburg Disaster knows, hydrogen will burn fiercely in the presence of oxygen. As long as Kanzius kept his generator on, the seawater “burned” at a temperature of 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit. Oh, the huge potential!
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There’s a way to turn previously useless agricultural byproducts into clear, clean, fuel oil – if, that is, you’ve got the guts. Turkey guts, in this case. The recipe may sound disgusting but it works: grind poultry heads, feathers and innards fine and mix with water, then heat to 500 degrees Fahrenheit at 600 psi. Cook for about an hour, or until the complex polymers in the offal mix start to break down. A little distillation and what was once garbage is now as good as gold… black gold.
Changing World Technologies is behind the push to turn organic, carbon-based waste from computer parts to turkey guts into fuel oil through thermo-depolymerization. Nature herself has paved the way: the billions of barrels of oil and gas buried deep underground were once living plants and animals “processed” into hydrocarbons by heat and pressure over hundreds of millions of years. CWT just speeds up the process a bit.
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So you’ve got a landfill that, like most landfills, burps (for want of a better word) methane from decomposing buried garbage. What to do? Well, one idea is to pipe it to a nearby school. Well, not directly – the EcoLine project uses purified methane gas captured from a nearby landfill to power 85 percent of the University Of New Hampshire’s heat and electricity needs. Rivals may still say UNH stinks but no, it’s just the landfill gas.
With the EcoLine project, UNH becomes the first school in the nation to source a majority of its power from landfill gas. The power isn’t free – infrastructure must be put in place to trap, store and purify the methane – but it’s significantly cheaper than burning fossil fuel with the added benefit of being non-polluting.
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Research by Argentine scientists has revealed that a single 1,210 lb (550 kg) cow produces 28 to 35 cubic feet (800 to 1,000 liters) of methane emissions each day – and let’s be frank, by “emissions” we don’t mean evaporating sweat. Nope, it’s cow farts. Cow burps too; these multi-stomached ruminants emit copious clouds of methane from both ends. Lucky for them some prankster doesn’t walk up with a lit match.
Methane is a much more reactive greenhouse gas compared to carbon dioxide and unlike CO2, it burns quite nicely. If only there were some practical way to capture the methane emitted by cows, sheep, goats, llamas… basically ANY domestic livestock, we’d be killing two birds with one stone. The cumbersome collection tank mounted on the recalcitrant bovine above is one possible solution but if not that, what?
(image via: Daniel Talsky)
Next to oil, coffee is the most traded commodity on the planet. Unlike oil, coffee production and preparation creates a lot of waste. Now it seems that this so-called waste – coffee grounds in particular – can be put to good use as a fuel. Researchers at the University of Nevada’s Department of Chemical and Materials Engineering analyzed coffee grounds and discovered they contain a significant percentage of oil in the form of biodiesel. What’s more, the natural anti-oxidants in the extracted coffee oil help extend its shelf life. The leftover grounds can be compacted and burnt as pelletized fuel.
While home users won’t be able to do much with their used coffee grounds beyond composting them, major coffee retailers could reap huge rewards by changing the way they treat waste grounds. It’s estimated that Starbucks generates 210 million pounds of coffee grounds annually. Processing these grounds could provide nearly 3 million gallons of biodiesel and about 90,000 tons of fuel pellets.
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What two things do female joggers have in common? If you answered breasts and MP3 players, you’d be right – and you probably need to get out more. The question is relevant, however, because some joggers have posited powering their iPods with energy generated by the repetitive motions of their breasts. Though companies like Triumph Japan have shown off solar-powered bras, there’s real science behind harnessing, if you will, the power of bouncing breasts.Victoria’s Circuit… you’ve gotta love it!
LaJean Lawson works as a consultant for sportswear companies like Nike and has been researching breast motion since 1985 in an effort to design better sports bras. Lawson discovered that a runner’s breasts move from side to side, from front to back, and up and down with the most motion is generated vertically. That may seem obvious; this more so: “Naturally, the bigger the breast, the more momentum it generates.” Giggity.
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Alternative energy sources are only unusual in the sense that they are unused, impractical, unprofitable or all of the above. That may just mean the times aren’t right for their implementation. Petroleum was known to the ancients but it wasn’t until late in the Industrial Revolution that oil was effectively sourced and processed into usable forms. It’s unknown what the future will hold for energy, but at least it’s certain there ARE alternatives.