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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 Yvan256 (722131) on Thursday September 10, 2009 @12:17PM (#29380339) Homepage Journal

    The bacteria Wall is studying are bio-corrosives and can change the solubility of heavy metals.

    So... they can convert heavy metal into liquid metal? How long until we can buy that on iTunes?

  • Interesting (Score:2, Interesting)

    by al0ha (1262684)
    This seems like it might prove useful. Now, when will they invent bacteria that can clean the dust from my computer? That would be really useful!
  • by Urban Garlic (447282) on Thursday September 10, 2009 @12:18PM (#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.

    • by ceoyoyo (59147)

      As usual the summary is at best hopelessly misleading.

    • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

      FTA:

      hey can take uranium and convert it to uraninite, a nearly insoluble substance that will sink to the bottom of a lake or stream. Wall is looking into ... how long the changed material would remain inert.

      Emphasis mine. It sounds to me that the bacteria are just converting the top layer into a uraninite shell; which insulates the radioactive material? "Nearly insoluble" suggests that it will eventually be broken down by the water, exposing the hot core once again.

      Am I reading this correctly? If so, it would seem a method of grinding the material to dust and feeding it into vats/barrels in an O2 free environment might lead to a more permanent solution. Granted, this dust is probably just as dangerous f

    • by hardburn (141468) <hardburn@@@wumpus-cave...net> on Thursday September 10, 2009 @12:52PM (#29380749)

      Yup, doesn't change radioactivity at all. Despite heavy metal toxicity being a far bigger problem in terms of actual, real-world pollution, it just doesn't have the attention-grabbing aspects that radiation does.

    • by tverbeek (457094)
      chemically non-toxic != non-radioactive
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      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

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by TheCarp (96830) *

        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,

      • Sounds like their research needs funding.

      • by Ardeaem (625311) on Thursday September 10, 2009 @01:46PM (#29381405)

        Researchers should either write their own press releases or else not bother talking to the press at all.

        I don't think you understand how this works at all. The researchers do research. The University has people on staff that are paid to publicize research. They try to understand the research as best they can. Then, they publicize it, trying to get the research all over the place, and THEY contact the press. If you are lucky (or unlucky, actually - it is a waste of time) the press may talk to you. The researchers are often several steps away from the reporters that report on it. I say this as a researcher who had research that I did at the University of Missouri (the university in question here) publicized, so I know how this works.

        The process is pretty much completely beyond your control as a researcher. If the University wants to publicize your research, and they're going to do it regardless of what you say. You can't just not talk to your own university about your research.

      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by Chris Burke (6130)

        Yeah, because the researcher was obviously looking over the reporter's shoulder when they were writing their copy. Also, there's zero chance whatsoever that the reporter had started with a more accurate but less punchy title, and an editor who understood even less decided to change it. Clearly anything on the printed/electronically distributed page is a direct reflection of what the researcher explicitly wanted to be printed. No scientist has ever been shocked to find that an article about their research

      • by hardburn (141468) <hardburn@@@wumpus-cave...net> on Thursday September 10, 2009 @01:54PM (#29381491)

        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.

        Shortly after 9/11, Phil Zimmermann was interviewed about the possibility that PGP was used in planning the attacks. He carefully stated that he had no regrets, but that's not what the Washington Post ran [philzimmermann.com].

        He was already very experienced with handling the press by that point. He even had the journalist read the entire article over the phone before sending it to the editor. So apparently, there is no defense against a bad editor misrepresenting something, unless you ignore the press altogether.

        • by dwye (1127395)

          > So apparently, there is no defense against a bad editor
          > misrepresenting something, unless you ignore the press altogether.

          Barring defenses detailed by Mark Twain (tar and feathering, blowing up the presses, shooting reporters on sight, etc.), there is no defense even if you ignore the press. They can just make up whatever they want, and are only liable for libel to the extent that a jury thinks you have been financially harmed (and don't deserve it, if they thought that PGP really *did* help in 9/

      • Never. Because people want to be the winners in natural selection, and everything else does not matter in the end? Duh!

        Think of ideas/mindsets/realities as lifeforms, and you will understand many things.

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by Repossessed (1117929)

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

  • So what are we after here, non-toxicity or non radioactive.

    They are still radioactive, but containment might be somewhat easier because they are inert seems to be the major claim here.

    This sounds a little like painting the DANGER sign green. Its not clear to me that the major problem with containment was the reactivity of the isotopes, but rather their radioactivity.

    • Re:Non-Toxic inert? (Score:5, Informative)

      by fuzzyfuzzyfungus (1223518) on Thursday September 10, 2009 @12:27PM (#29380473) Journal
      There are two main reasons that you'd be concerned about chemical properties. One is just that a fair number of exciting radioisotopes are also chemically unpleasant. The second is that the chemical properties determine, in large part, how easy it is to keep the substance contained. An insoluble and largely unreactive material will be fine even if the barrel leaks a bit. A corrosive and water soluble material will make the barrel leak a bit and then start leaching into the water table. Radiation is bad; but isolating small areas of intense radioactivity is fairly easy. Isolating large areas of modest radioactivity that has a nasty habit of getting in the drinking water and being incorporated into your bones is quite difficult.

      If a bacterial process can economically neutralize the material and induce it to stay where it is, rather than dissolving and floating around, that would make the problem smaller.
      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by im_thatoneguy (819432)

        The two methods most commonly proposed that I'm aware of currently to do this are through pebble bed reactors which keep all the radioactive material inside insoluble carbon shells and glassification which embeds the material in insoluble silica for relatively safe disposal.

        Just a couple other areas of research for those interested.

      • by jhfry (829244)

        Not to mention density. A vat of radioactive sludge is larger and heavier than the actual radioactive metals within the vat. If you could extract the radioactive metal from the surrounding chemicals and only store that, you may save a significant amount on the storage, transportation, and monitoring of the waste.

        Oh and you can't forget about perception. If I showed you a radio active brick and a drum of sludge and asked you to pick one to store in your back yard... you would pick the brick every time. M

      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by Andy Dodd (701)

        Also, its solubility can determine how much damage it'll actually do to a human that is exposed to it.

        e.g. if it's a soluble substance in the water supply, it'll get absorbed into the bloodstream and potentially stay there for a while doing damage. IIRC radioactive isotopes of iodine are considered "really bad" because of the tendency of the body to concentrate and retain it in the thyroid.

        If it's insoluble, the chance of it actually being in the water consumed by a human is far lower, and even if it is co

    • Re:Non-Toxic inert? (Score:5, Informative)

      by meerling (1487879) on Thursday September 10, 2009 @12:31PM (#29380521)
      I'm no where near an expert on this stuff, but my understanding is that the big change is a soluble nasty material is made non-soluble.

      In other words, that really nasty stuff likes to dissolve in water and spread everywhere, especially into the water table.

      They want to make it not do that, so it's in a contained area, and might even be possible to extract it, or at least stopping it from making everything within a huge area into Chernobyl Nitelights.

      I actually worked at a place that had to monitor this kind of stuff.
      Previous owners had 'disposed' of contaminated materials by buying them.
      Ironically, it wasn't the buried stuff that was the greatest risk factor to us.

      I'm sure most of you, including icebike, probably understand this, but it seemed the perfect chunk of thread to post this. :)
    • by ceoyoyo (59147)

      The example they give is a uranium mine. In that case, I doubt the uranium bits laying around are any more dangerous due to radioactivity than they were before they were mined. The problem seems to be that disturbing the stuff has broken it into small enough bits to be dissolved in the local water. Binding the uranium into an insoluble compound would be very handy.

      • by icebike (68054)

        Is uranium water soluble?

        My understanding was that uranium was not, irradiated uranium grains have been intact for over a billion years. [nrc-cnrc.gc.ca]

        Uranium oxide (UO2) is slightly soluble. (same source).

        So this discovery seems not aimed at Uranium waste management, but perhaps at medical waste.

        • Is uranium water soluble?

          Is iron (II/III) water soluble?

        • by ceoyoyo (59147)

          Apparently it's enough to be a concern in some places. Note that uranium exists as oxides in nature. It oxidizes quite quickly when exposed to the air.

          Perhaps the problem is with uranium dust that is partially dissolved and partially suspended in the water.

  • by pwizard2 (920421) on Thursday September 10, 2009 @12:19PM (#29380373)
    What happens when the radiation mutates the bacteria? Single-celled organisms mutate very easily, and we could easily have a serious problem on our hands if the bacteria turn into something that is dangerous to us and then multiply out of control.
    • by CorporateSuit (1319461) on Thursday September 10, 2009 @12:24PM (#29380439)

      What happens when the radiation mutates the bacteria? Single-celled organisms mutate very easily, and we could easily have a serious problem on our hands if the bacteria turn into something that is dangerous to us and then multiply out of control.

      Scientists already know that whenever this happens, Godzilla awakens from his slumber, tussles with the creature, eventually righting mankind's wrongs through violence, and then torches part of Tokyo before returning peacefully to the sea for another year. I don't know what you're so worried about.

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by Nadaka (224565)

      for most transuranic elements, their chemical toxicity is far more lethal than the radiation hazard they possess.

    • What happens when the radiation mutates the bacteria? Single-celled organisms mutate very easily

      Bacteria do a pretty good job of mutating all by themselves. Just because some mutations were induced by radiation doesn't make them any more (or less) likely to result in something dangerous to us.

      and we could easily have a serious problem on our hands if the bacteria turn into something that is dangerous to us and then multiply out of control.

      You've seen too many bad science fiction movies.

    • by clone53421 (1310749) on Thursday September 10, 2009 @12:36PM (#29380575) Journal

      I, for one, welcome our radioactive bacteria overlords!

    • by ceoyoyo (59147)

      Because the bacteria currently crawling all over the uranium mine aren't just as (un)likely to spontaneously mutate into miniature brain sucking Godzillas.

    • by eleuthero (812560)
      Most of the other respondents to the parent have ridiculed the post along the lines of "you've seen too many science fiction movies." While this is probably the case for most slashdotters, surely turning radioactive elements in humans into inert compounds would be a bad thing... Don't we need our radioactive carbon while we're alive? If so, then the bacteria probably should remain only viable in non-oxygen environments (assuming the human body has enough O around it and in it to prevent anaerobic bacteria f
      • Don't we need our radioactive carbon while we're alive?

        No.

        It makes archeology easier, because C14 makes it easier to date old things we pull out of the ground, but our metabolisms don't run on radiation.

    • by RsG (809189) on Thursday September 10, 2009 @12:40PM (#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.

      • Zombies.

        And by the way, my knowledge of biology is not from Hollywood. It's from the Internet! [archive.org]
      • by Chazerizer (934553) on Thursday September 10, 2009 @01:40PM (#29381323)
        You scoff at the above poster, but there are (non-lethal) mutations possible that could make these particular bacteria more dangerous to people. A single mutation causes an amino acid change in the protein that converts uranium to uranite. Now, instead of uranium, it binds phosphorus (or calcium, or ferrous ions, or whatever) because its pore size is different. Instead of removing uranium for the water, it now creates large, insoluble phosphorus deposits. Even if the remaining bacteria remove the uranium, you are still left with a completely unlivable ecosystem for micro-organisms (and higher life forms which feed on them, and so on), because basic nutrients are in extremely short supply. In essence, you've traded one barren landscape for another, and that just fails to help anyone. This isn't a terribly likely scenario. 99.999% of mutations are likely to be either fatal to the microorganisms or irrelevant. On the other hand, if a group of bacteria are exposed to 10^m photons of gamma radiation...I'm guessing at least a few beneficial, non-desirable mutations could occur. They won't turn the microbes into the blob, but they could end up causing some very non-desirable effects.
      • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

        by LanMan04 (790429)

        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?

        Uh, lions? T-Rex? panthers?

        I understand what you're getting at, but most (all?) extant species that are dangerous to humans were (a) not dangerous to humans at some point in their history (300mya, or whatever), and (b) were mutated by radiation at *some* point in the past. Not sure how prevalent radiation-induced mutation is compared to transcription-based ones, but it can't be 0.

        Sorry, just picking nits. :)

        • by RsG (809189) on Thursday September 10, 2009 @02:06PM (#29381659)

          Sorry, no, those examples aren't what I asked for.

          To begin with, animals that reproduce sexually get an overwhelming majority of their genetic diversity from recombining genes from both parents. Random mutation, while present, is a minor factor in their evolution (how minor is a source of continued debate). All of your examples fall into this category.

          Further, while they did likely mutate due to radiation at some point (you're quite right that the rate of radiation induced mutation is not zero), they don't meet the criteria of "harmless before, was mutated, now dangerous". Specifically, all of the examples you gave were apex predators, descended from a long line of large predatory animals, all of them likely dangerous.

          In the case of the T-Rex, it's entirely possibly the species' ancestors were more dangerous, since Tyrannosaurs are generally thought to have been more opportunists than hunters - evolution made them less deadly, even as they got larger.

          Anyway, I get your point that every extant species has at least some traits imparted by radiation induced mutation, and wasn't arguing otherwise. I merely wished to show that radiation isn't a relevant force in making otherwise harmless bacteria into pathogens, despite what Hollywood science has to say.

      • I have one for you: OTHER HUMANS.

        *TADAAA*

        Did I win something? ;)

    • Single-celled organisms mutate very easily, and we could easily have a serious problem on our hands if the bacteria turn into something that is dangerous to us and then multiply out of control.

      They already multiply rapidly. There is in fact only one control on their numbers: availability of food. That's a big barrier that isn't going to be overcome with an increased mutation rate: they already mutate so rapidly that the increased presence of radiation probably won't significantly change things. In fact, if anything it will probably limit their numbers for a short time. They only have one chromesome, if a vital gene gets damaged they have no backup. They also generally have less machinery dev

    • What happens when the radiation mutates the bacteria? Single-celled organisms mutate very easily, and we could easily have a serious problem on our hands if the bacteria turn into something that is dangerous to us and then multiply out of control.

      Take the pre-emptive approach, like me: I, for one, welcome our mutant radioactive material-inerting bacterial overlords!

    • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

      What happens when the radiation mutates the bacteria? Single-celled organisms mutate very easily, and we could easily have a serious problem on our hands if the bacteria turn into something that is dangerous to us and then multiply out of control.

      Or, we get the Teenage Mutant Ninja Microbes. Heroes with a half-life! Microbe power!

    • by Jesus_666 (702802)

      What happens when the radiation mutates the bacteria?

      Nothing, unless we make the bacteria angry. In that case it will turn green and start tossing around tanks.

  • real estate (Score:4, Funny)

    by datapharmer (1099455) on Thursday September 10, 2009 @12:21PM (#29380397) Homepage
    So what they're really saying is they've got a great deal on Ukranian real estate that we don't want to miss out on?

    Oh, and I for one welcome our uranium-eating overlords.
    • I read that as "Ukranian-eating overlords", and for a second thought Borat's brother would be in trouble.

  • by Brett Buck (811747) on Thursday September 10, 2009 @12:22PM (#29380407)

    Of course they are not actually changing radioactive materials to non-radioactive materials - they change the compounds containing uranium to compunds that are very weakly soluble in water (instead of highly soluble), so they don't migrate easily. Very useful, but a little different from the impression I got from the summary.

          Brett

  • Bad article title (Score:5, Insightful)

    by NewbieProgrammerMan (558327) on Thursday September 10, 2009 @12:23PM (#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>

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Zantac69 (1331461)
      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 b
  • Summary says it "cleanses the radioactivity". No it doesn't. The bacteria makes the metal inert *chemically*.

    • True. It also says they render "heavy metals into non-toxic, inert versions", which is incorrect. It reduces contamination by removing the metals, but it doesn't make them any less toxic.

  • Except, it doesn't make a bit of difference, guys. The balls are inert.
  • So then we end up with... Radioactive bacteria? =)
  • by gurps_npc (621217) on Thursday September 10, 2009 @01:12PM (#29380975) Homepage
    First, let me congratulate the woman in the picture for the article. That picture is just a 100% spot on for Mad Scientist. The huge arms, the vials, the strange lighting, - perfect.

    Second, this article is REALLY short on facts. The least it could have done is explain exactly what the difference was between the dangerous and the safe uranium. A simple molecular formula comparison would have been very helpfull. Plus they should have told us WHY it was safe. Something along the lines of 'this molecule tastes horrible to other bacteria', as opposed to just leaving us hanging.

    • by nedlohs (1335013)

      How does:

      """
      They can take uranium and convert it to uraninite, a nearly insoluble substance that will sink to the bottom of a lake or stream.
      """

      not answer your questions?

      The difference is the dangerous one is soluble, the safe one is insoluble. The reason it is safer is it will sink to the bottom instead of being in the water supply.

      Of course insoluble forms can be more toxic to handle since they bioaccumulate whereas the soluble forms cause more initial absorption but are also more readily excreted.

  • Or how do the bacteria survive in this environment?

    (I for one welcome our radioactive, mutated metal-disassembling bacteria overlords!)

    • by Tweenk (1274968) on Thursday September 10, 2009 @01:31PM (#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]

  • I don't insist on creatures that can actually alter the half-life of radioisotopes. Just ones that ingest them, do isotopic separation, and excrete the separated isotopes into segregated containers. We can let the uranium and hydrogen/deuterium separators drive the economy, with all the other separators running as boutique suppliers.

    • by Locke2005 (849178)
      While we're at it, could you develop a bacteria that functions like Maxwell's Demon [wikipedia.org]? That would seriously decrease heating and air conditioning costs. Thanks.
  • ...the missing link in the food chain up to the gorilla, who will then freeze in winter.

  • Pretty sure Ghost In The Shell had something similar [wikipedia.org]. 'The Japanese Miracle'. Slightly different in that it's micromachines as opposed to bacteria, but what I thought of.
  • Bad Summary (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Nom du Keyboard (633989) on Thursday September 10, 2009 @02:28PM (#29381893)
    When you first read this you get the insane idea that somehow the bacteria render the radioactivity into non-radioactive substances. I actually read an SF story long ago where bacteria did exactly that. This looks to be just as radioactive afterwards as before, and not what the article implies.
  • It would be interesting to see how this would work in a vacuum environment, where no air is present, and let the metals get treated to become inert with radioactivity.

  • by russotto (537200) on Thursday September 10, 2009 @03:26PM (#29382545) Journal

    If you can get these bacteria to selectively convert U-235 over U-238 (or vice-versa), then you've got an interesting bug.

    • If you can do that why not just make helium from hydrogen?

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by Johnno74 (252399)

      You'd be much better off trying to find / engineer a bug that can change lead into gold.

      If you had something that could convert U-235 to U-238, then lead into gold isn't that much harder.

  • bacteria that can cleanse the radioactivity from toxic areas by rendering the heavy metals into non-toxic, inert versions.

    Radioctivity is a property at the atomic level. Thus, if an element is radioactive, its compounds are.

    You can't make radioactivity go away with chemistry.

    Unhandled exception: summary threw metric_fuckton_of_bullshit at or near line 2.

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      If you read the couple dozen earlier posts here, it's been pointed out repeatedly that it doesn't actually render them radioactively inert, just chemically inert and insoluble. If radioactive elements don't dissolve their barrels, and aren't soluble in water, then storage becomes a much easier problem.

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