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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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The global climate change strikes on Friday are said to have been the largest protest for climate change in history. An estimated four million people participated in 2,500 events across 163 countries on all seven continents. That included an estimated 300,000 Australians, but a total of zero were in Hyde Park in Sydney, despite a viral photo that claims otherwise.

Australian Youth Coal Coalition, a pro-coal Facebook page, posted a photo showing trash strewn across a park after what appears to have been a large event. "Look at the mess today's climate protesters left behind in beautiful Hyde Park," the photo was captioned. "So much plastic. So much landfill. So sad." The only problem is, the photo wasn't taken after a climate change protest. It wasn't even taken in Australia.

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via GOOD / YouTube

Last Friday, millions of people in 150 countries across the globe took to the streets to urge world leaders to enact dramatic solutions to combat climate change.

The Climate Strike was inspired, in part, by Greta Thunberg, a 16-year-old girl from Sweden who has captured worldwide attention for her tireless work to hold lawmakers responsible for the climate crisis.

The strike gave people across the planet the opportunity to make their voices heard before the U.N. General Assembly Climate Summit in New York City on Monday.

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Photo by Casey Horner on Unsplash

As world leaders meet to discuss new ways to tackle climate change at the U.N. Climate Action Summit, they might miss one very big part of healing nature – nature. In a new short film, youth climate change activist Greta Thunberg and George Monbiot, a writer for the Guardian, talked about how we need to use nature as a solution to climate change.

There's a huge push to curb emissions, but it's not the be all end all of handling climate change; we also need to remove CO2 from the atmosphere. While we don't have technology to do that for us, there is another solution. "There is a magic machine that sucks carbon out of the air, costs very little, and builds itself. It's called a tree," Monboit says in the film. Researchers found that we could get rid of two-thirds of the carbon dioxide that we've emitted during the industrial era just by growing trees. That amounts to 205 billion tons of carbon. Right now, deforestation of tropical forests is responsible for 20% of current greenhouse emissions.

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Climate Action Tracker

In 2016, 196 countries signed the Paris Agreement, pledging to combat climate change by taking action to curb the increase in global temperatures. The Paris Agreement requires countries to report on their emissions and what steps they're taking to implement those plans. Now that the countries are coming together again for the U.N. Climate Action Summit in New York City, it's worth taking a look at what kind of progress they've made.

The Climate Action Trackerkeeps tabs on what each country is doing to limit warming, and if they're meeting their self-set goals. Countries are graded based on whether or not their actions would help limit warming to 1.5 degrees C.

According to a recent article from National Geographic, The Gambia, Morocco, and India are at the head of the class. "Even though carbon emissions in The Gambia, Morocco, and India are expected to rise, they'll fall short of exceeding the 1.5-degree Celsius limit," the article reads. Saudi Arabia, Russia and the United States, on the other hand, get a big fat F. "Projected emissions in Saudi Arabia, Russia, and the United States are far greater than what it would take to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius."

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Screenshot via Sweden.se/Twitter (left) Wikimedia Commons (right)

Greta Thunberg has been dubbed the "Joan of Arc of climate change" for good reason. The 16-year-old activist embodies the courage and conviction of the unlikely underdog heroine, as well as the seemingly innate ability to lead a movement.

Thunberg has dedicated her young life to waking up the world to the climate crisis we face and cutting the crap that gets in the way of fixing it. Her speeches are a unique blend of calm rationality and no-holds-barred bluntness. She speaks truth to power, dispassionately and unflinchingly, and it is glorious.

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