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Biotech Earth Science

Bacteria Used To Make Radioactive Metals Inert 237

Posted by CmdrTaco
from the a-million-and-one-uses dept.
Serenissima writes "Researcher Judy Wall is experimenting with bacteria that can cleanse the radioactivity from toxic areas by rendering the heavy metals into non-toxic, inert versions. The technology is not without its flaws (the bacteria can't exist in an oxygenated environment yet), but it does have the potential to cleanse some of the world's hazardous sites. From the article: 'The bacteria Wall is studying are bio-corrosives and can change the solubility of heavy metals. They can take uranium and convert it to uraninite, a nearly insoluble substance.'"
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Bacteria Used To Make Radioactive Metals Inert

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  • by Urban Garlic (447282) on Thursday September 10, 2009 @01:18PM (#29380355)

    The article is light on details, but at least it's not as dumb as it sounds. The bacteria can sequester the heavy metals into chemically inert compounds, which can then be separated mechanically ("settle to the bottom of a lake") from the environment.

    They don't appear to be claiming that they have a biological process that can change the half-life of a Plutonium atom by eating it in a clever way, though the headline-writer may have thought that.

  • Misleading (Score:1, Insightful)

    by PvtVoid (1252388) on Thursday September 10, 2009 @01:20PM (#29380383)
    Jeez, what a terrible article, and an equally terrible summary. Both make it sound like the bacteria make the metals nonradioactive, which of course is absurd. (Nuclear bacteria?) The bacteria just make the metals insoluble. They're still radioactive.
  • Bad article title (Score:5, Insightful)

    by NewbieProgrammerMan (558327) on Thursday September 10, 2009 @01:23PM (#29380425)

    <science-nitpickery>

    "Bacteria Used To Make Radioactive Metals Inert" implies that the bacteria are making radioactive metals non-radioactive. A better title might be "Bacteria Used to make Poisonous Heavy Metals Inert," or "Bacteria Turn Radioactive Heavy Metals Into Chemically Inert Radioactive Stuff That Is Easier To Clean Up."

    </science-nitpickery>

  • by Whalou (721698) on Thursday September 10, 2009 @01:24PM (#29380443)

    What happens when the radiation mutates the bacteria?

    Movies will be made.

  • by RsG (809189) on Thursday September 10, 2009 @01:40PM (#29380633)

    I have an exercise for you.

    Find me a species, mutated by radiation, that subsequently became dangerous to human beings. Anything at all. I don't care what kingdom, genus, family, what-have-you; anything from a virus to an animal. Harmless before, was mutated, now dangerous. Should be easy, with such a broad mandate - there has to be at least one example that will serve to support your point, right?

    Nope. While there are plenty of deadly lifeforms on this planet, mutation via exposure to radiation does not make them deadlier. Conversely, overuse of antibiotics (to give one example) has made bacteria deadlier, or at least harder to cure.

    "Mutation" is one of those idiot words - it has a very specific meaning in biology, one that has no resemblance to the way non-biologists habitually use it. Most mutations are detrimental to the organisms survival. The only circumstances under which this is not the case is where the mutation occurs in conjunction with selection pressure that favours the mutant. Bacteria, even parasitic ones, do not benefit from being deadly - lethality is not a survival trait for pathogens.

    You've been getting your biology from Hollywood.

  • by Zantac69 (1331461) on Thursday September 10, 2009 @01:46PM (#29380689) Journal
    The dissolved uranium is reduced to uranite (incidently a common ore that is mined for uranium) inside the bacterial bodies. So in nature, they "eat" dissolved uranium, it accumulates in their bodies, they die, the bodies settle, the bodies decompose leaving uranite. Do that for long enough and you have uranite deposits...much how bacteria oxidized the dissolved iron in the oceans to remove it from solution.

    Does this make everything safe? No - just makes it easier to clean up since if can separate the bacteria from the contaminated water.

    So dont get too excited.
  • They don't appear to be claiming that they have a biological process that can change the half-life of a Plutonium atom by eating it in a clever way, though the headline-writer may have thought that.

    The headline writer did think that, and by failing to correct that(probably obvious) misconception these researchers are effectively claiming just that.

    This might sound unfair, but it's really very simple. If a reporter comes to ask you about your research, and comes away printing something totally inaccurate or just completely wrong then that is your fault. You invited them in, you gave them the rope, showed them how to knot it. Why should you complain when they inevitably hang themselves and you in the process.

    Researchers should either write their own press releases or else not bother talking to the press at all. In fact, I recommend the latter. Most research is too technical to have a hope of garnering media attention with "embellishing" it, and once you start doing that you've stopped doing honest research and have moved on to dishonest peddling. You've stopped dealing in the facts and have moved on to anti-facts.

    Once, once again, this is all in Feynman's Cargo Cult Science speech. Here's the passage relevant to our discussion

    I'm talking about a specific, extra type of integrity that is not lying, but bending over backwards to show how you are maybe wrong, that you ought to have when acting as a scientist. And this is our responsibility as scientists, certainly to other scientists, and I think to laymen.

    For example, I was a little surprised when I was talking to a friend who was going to go on the radio. He does work on cosmology and astronomy, and he wondered how he would explain what the applications of this work were. "Well," I said, "there aren't any." He said, "Yes, but then we won't get support for more research of this kind." I think that's kind of dishonest. If you're representing yourself as a scientist, then you should explain to the layman what you're doing--and if they don't want to support you under those circumstances, then that's their decision.

    This speech is 35 years old. When are people going to start paying attention to it?

  • Re:Misleading (Score:1, Insightful)

    by PvtVoid (1252388) on Thursday September 10, 2009 @02:25PM (#29381129)

    The problem is the submitter and editor thought folks at slashdot would know what "inert" means. Obviously, you and a few others didn't..."Inert" has absolutely nothing whatever to do with radioactivity, even though radioactive materials may or may not be inert.

    Chemically inert would have been perfectly clear. The word "inert" has a broader meaning in common usage than this narrow technical definition, being a synonym for inactive [reference.com].

    But you do get extra points for being snotty and pedantic.

  • by Tweenk (1274968) on Thursday September 10, 2009 @02:31PM (#29381207)

    The public perception of radiation is the best example that humans are generally stupid, and that stupidity has to be beaten out of them using blunt instruments. The Fallout games, Hulk, Spider-Man, etc. are NOT fact-based. They do NOT depict actual effects of radiation. Those are FAIRY TALES. There is no such thing as a Chinese syndrome. The nuclear power industry is not comspiring to destroy the world. Animals do not turn into monsters when heavily irradiated, they die! People do not turn into ghouls or zombies when heavily irradiated, they die as well! Please repeat this 100 times.

    Now to answer this question, here is an example of a very radiation-resistant bacteria:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Deinococcus_radiodurans [wikipedia.org]

  • by TheCarp (96830) * <sjcNO@SPAMcarpanet.net> on Thursday September 10, 2009 @02:32PM (#29381219) Homepage

    I agree with the concept, but I don't know if I am ready to toss recriminations. Yes, it is indeed the job of a scientist to both publish his work, and to try and shoot holes in it and show how he might be wrong. He should be honest as to what it really means (if cosmologists are bad on this front, look at a science where money is more heavily mixed in like pharmacology or other medical sciences and you can see this problem is rampant to the point that you wonder how they have any credibility left).

    However, you can't always be sure that your meaning is understood by everyone. Have you never had someone do something other than what you wanted and claim that its what you asked of them? I just had an issue this past day where I told someone I had to check on something to see if I could help him, and he only heard "yea I want to help". Is that my fault that he ran off and made commitments himself based on me helping him? I told him 3 times I wasn't sure if I even could.

    Sometimes, despite best efforts to prevent them, misunderstandings happen.

    -Steve

  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday September 10, 2009 @03:10PM (#29381719)

    If a reporter comes to ask you about your research, and comes away printing something totally inaccurate or just completely wrong then that is your fault. You invited them in, you gave them the rope, showed them how to knot it. Why should you complain when they inevitably hang themselves and you in the process.

    Because, in my experience, reporters take your name, whatever they like of what you say, embellish it with stuff from their own imagination, and print whatever they feel like. The better ones come out with something resembling accuracy and I give them interviews in the future, getting the complete idiots to correct their fabrications is nearly pointless, best you can do is not repeat the mistake. It's not like the media gives the interviewee editorial control over the final product.

  • by Repossessed (1117929) on Thursday September 10, 2009 @04:21PM (#29382495)

    How exactly is the researcher responsible for what an editor he never met writes? The Journalists can't even control the headlines.

  • by Jedi Alec (258881) on Friday September 11, 2009 @04:51AM (#29387155)

    I'm typically pretty tame and if you lure me with some food I might even allow you to pet me(provided you're female, attractive and my significant other isn't within sight). If you were to start using my home as a nuclear testing ground and I managed to survive i reckon I'd be pretty damn aggressive too however ;-)

"Love your country but never trust its government." -- from a hand-painted road sign in central Pennsylvania

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