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Bacteria-Basted Supertrees Are Sucking Pollution From Our Waste Sites

Scientists scored a special strain of bacteria that breaks down hazardous waste. Now the race is on to find the gene that made it happen

Photo by Jose Antonio Alba/Pixabay.

Probiotics: They’re not just for your kombucha anymore.

When it comes to public health, infection and pollution often pose similar problems. They can move fast, resist treatment, and cost a lot of money to find a cure. But thanks to some inventive bioscience, there’s a new way to turn bacteria to our advantage in the fight against environmental degradation.

There are two heroes to this ecological story: University of Washington microbiologist Sharon Doty and a strain of Enterobacter by the name of PDN3. Years ago, Doty and her team wanted to see if they could genetically engineer more robust results from the poplar tree, which is sometimes used to naturally drain away a poisonous industrial byproduct called TCE.

Trouble is, the use of genetically modified plants requires an environmental impact study that drags on too long to encourage their use. Doty routed around the mandate, saturating saplings in PDN3 bacteria and planting them beside ordinary poplars at several hazardous Bay Area Superfund sites.

Then, the hard work of waiting began.

Stopping underground contaminants from fouling water and soil is one of the most pressing challenges facing environmental scientists. The EPA has fast-tracked 21 hazardous sites “for immediate, intense action,” including several locations where groundwater is in danger of becoming too polluted for human consumption.

The task can also be one of the most taxing. One residential site in Indiana flagged for cleanup recently saw its price tag quadruple — from some $23 million to almost 85 million — as investigators determined pollutants were more widespread than first believed.

When extreme contamination threatens drinking water, time and money pressure can become downright prohibitive. Bioremediation machines that fully reduce carcinogen levels to safety can cost up to $3 million just to install.

But now, Doty’s results are in, and they could change everything. Because of a gene inside PDN3, the saturated poplars grew into thicker, healthier trees — while simultaneously dropping the TCE count in their area below the level deemed safe for drinking water by the EPA. Now, it’s all about finding the magic gene, which could rescue imperiled communities far faster than ever before.

Bottoms up, trees.

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