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Toxic-Waste Consuming Bacteria 143

Posted by Hemos
from the eat-up-the-garbage dept.
cswiii writes "CNN has this article about scientists who have created bacteria that consume toxic wastes, such as radioactive materials, breaking them down into less harmful compounds. " Similar work has been done before with genetically engineering trees. I believe that bactera that eats oil has been actually used in oil spills before.
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Toxic-Waste Consuming Bacteria

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  • by Anonymous Coward
    Insightful my ass. These special purpose bacteria are no more likely to mutate into something that adversely affects humans than the trillions upon trillions of bacteria that are currently within 20 feet of you.

    I bet you'd freak if you knew how much bacteria is living in your mouth right now, all (theoretically) capable of mutating into "The Evil Toxic Death Disease."
  • by Anonymous Coward
    Now if they made bacteria to eat copyright/patient lawyers
  • by Anonymous Coward
    only if the kind of radiation youre talking about is neutron emission (like from a fission decay). any other (ie gamma beta alpha) radiation cannot transmute other elements and therefore cannot make them radioactive. think food irradiation and microwave ovens, your coffee isnt radioactive after you pull it out of the microwave.
  • by Anonymous Coward
    But really, in all seriousness, Slashdot's biology knowledge is *far* below its tech knowledge and it shows! Cool new computer & physics advances are hailed, but everytime genetics is mentioned we get some kind of "Playing God" or "Toying with the Apocalypse", or, my favorite, the inane "Jurassic Park" posts.

    1.) As many have stated this bioremediation is neither new nor untested.

    2.)Bacterium that degrade organic compuounds DON'T just suddenly evolve into killer mutant ebola death microbes!!! Yeesh. I'd be MUCH more worried about virulent strains of E. coli or other natural microbes that live (and feed) off of us "evolving" in such a way. At least there's an evolutionary precedent and possible advantage for that (note - I don't think this is likely either, but it's better than the idea that these toxic bugs are going to become the next flesh-eating bacteria)

    3.)Everybody is worried about microbes that could survive radiation... guess what? Naturally occuring microbes DO on a regular basis! I've seen scientists place relatively common bacteria in a flask and shove the thing next to a high radiation source (equivalent of a nuclear reactor). The result? Colonies can survive & live. Bacteria have survived on space probes through stellar radiation as well. The horror!

    I think people should calm down about this topic and go back to worrying about GM stuff (I think the worries in that area are overstated as well, but at least some of the concerns are valid and rational. Personally I have little problems with genetic engineering)

    Real life != Science Fiction.

    Most sci-fi writers != scientists.

    Fiction can symbolize, and inspire, but it's predictive powers are not exactly accurate. Finally, I still think people underestimate biologists in these cases. Everyone throws out ideas "What if X happens and then the bacteria change..." People, the biologists DO think about these things! I know that biologists very seriously consider many aspects of this research(ethical and environmental), after all, they're not idiots! Slashdot really needs to get over these wild, knee-jerk reactions to every biology story posted here.

    Respectfully,
    Kevin Christie
    kwchri@wm.edu
  • Apparently whoever marked me as offtopic hasn't read it... <g>
  • Good point. I also thought of another possibility after I hit "submit". :^)

    What would happen if an extremely serious environmental catastrophy occurred? Like, for instance, several nuclear reactors in Russia blowing up at once, or a couple of massive oil spills in a single area (unlikely, but certainly possible). As a response, we dump tons of these bacteria on the affected area, and lo and behold! All life forms in the area die off, or something equivalently bad. And, bacteria being what they are and all, this devestation starts spreading as the bacteria population grows.

    "Oops... sorry sir. These side-effects didn't show up in the testing phase."

    Food for thought.

  • Insightful my ass. These special purpose bacteria are no more likely to mutate into something that adversely affects humans than the trillions upon trillions of bacteria that are currently within 20 feet of you. I bet you'd freak if you knew how much bacteria is living in your mouth right now, all (theoretically) capable of mutating into "The Evil Toxic Death Disease."

    Tell ya what... I do know what kind of bacteria live in my mouth. I also happen to know the kind of bacteria are living in all our underpants. Add this to the fact that half the guys I see walk out of the men's room do so without washing their hands first, and man! That's freaky!

    But you missed a very important point. All those icky bacteria have been around for a long time. Most of them have evolved into sort of a "steady-state". Our immune systems know how to handle them. Our immune systems could most likely even handle a slight mutation (if they didn't, you'd likely be killed off by the next cold virus to come around).

    But, oh, these new bacteria... where the hell did they come from? Did they co-evolve with human beings and other creatures of the planet? Can we even think of what will happen if a slight variance in the gene sequence of these modified bacteria caused them to, say, enjoy living in our intestines or in our lungs? Will their taste for petroleum-based wastes expand to other areas, such as some obscure chemical in the lining of our cell walls? If you can answer those questions, please tell me. I'd like to know. :^)

  • While the short term benefits of this are indeed amazing, many slashdotters know that many times these sort of "magic bullets" can backfire on you. For instance, many Europeans are boycotting American foods that come from geneticly engineered plants and animals, and for good reason: We have absolutely no idea what the long term effects are going to be. In fact, some long-term effects are already coming into light (the presence of corn-generated insecticide in the surrounding envoronment, for example).

    These bacteria look like exactly what we need to solve industrial pollution caused by accidents. But now I will apply my meager sci-fi skills to extrapolate what will happen in the future if these things become widespread in use.

    1. Bacteria are used to clean up a toxic spill, but a slight mutation causes the bacteria to start an epidemic in humans or other animals (if it affects other animals, it would still be harmful to us if that animal was, say, a cow or a dog).
    2. Corporations, upon realizing that there's a cheap and easy way to clean up after their environmental accidents, become lazy and sloppy. A benzene chemical leak doesn't seem so bad if all it takes is the biological equivalent of a napkin to clean it up. However, not only does this raise the possibility of likelihood #1 above happening, but we could see more environmental catastrophies happening on a more frequent basis. (Never attribute something to malice what could be more satisfactorly attributed to incompetence; we have no shortage of incompetence in this world of ours).
    3. Research that should go into making factories and industrial zones safer and more environmentally friendly instead goes to making "superbacteria". It's sort of like someone buying 2 liters of oil a week for your car when what's really needed is an engine overhaul to fix the leaky engine.

    These bacteria don't solve the problem, and have the potential of causing worse problems (the classic 'cure worse than the disease'). I'd rather not see this as a cure-all for our environmental ills.

  • Actually, as someone with some slight familiarity with similar bacteria, I think your fear is misplaced. The bacteria need sunlight and nutrients besides the oil in order to break down the oil.


    I know someone who helped develop oil-eating bacteria. She's said the Feds haven't been helpful in the way they regulate it, otherwise it would have been used much more extensively in such things as the Prince William Sound oil spill.

  • If you take the forms that attack oil spills, I think what happens is that when you run out of oil the bacteria dies or goes dormant. Sort of like what happens when you brew beer. The Yeast runs out of food and just drops to the bottom of the container. (Also the alchahol at some point stops the yeast from fermenting).
  • Didn't I read this in Neil Stephenson's Zodiac? :)

    That's the same thought I had...

    "For every research victory there is a corresponding increase in ignorance." - David Orr
    --
  • It seems to me that since these bacteria have been around for almost two billion years (or so the article claims), if they were capable of exploiting such a niche and eating all the crude oil in the world, they would have done it already and petroleum would be unknown to us. A billion years is a very long time. If the necessary mutations didn't occur in that period, it's not going to happen on any timescale that concerns humans. We'll have burned it all long, long before the bacteria could get to it.
  • The story simply says that the bacteria can clean up hazardous waste in the presence of high levels of radiation. The bacteria does nothing about reducing the radiation. One can conceive of a chemical reaction that might make it easier to retrieve the radioactive material for a less threatening disposal, but the material at the nuclear level remains unaffected.
  • "What if..."
    "Call me paranoid, but..."

    Will you people get over it already. Seriously. This is getting silly. Bacteria have such a small genome that they basically can do one thing and do that one thing well. Bacteria don't decide that they are going to do anything. They just do it. No pun intended.

    No one complains when bacteria are used to produce antibiotics. No one complains when bacteria is used to produce food. Why not get all fired up over that?

  • No. Radioactivity is a an atomic-level property that is unaffected by chemical re-arrangement of said atoms.

    The article actually says that "the superbug does not neutralize radioactivity in metals", but only after strongly implying the opposite. Poor writing.

    -- Brian

  • As it seems unlikely that bacterium are equipped with the ability to break radioactive materials into stable elements. The only way I can see this would be useful would be if the bacteria injested the radioactive materials, locking them into a form that was not as likely to spread. For example, one of the biggest concerns in the U.S. Superfund sites is the contamination of ground water. If the bacteria could injest radioactive materials in water and then upon dying keep the contaminates locked in a solid, this would be a Good Thing.

    -Chris
  • These enhancements only stay around when there is some positive benefit. Example. Suppose that in 5 years 50% of all bacteria are resistant to penicillan then we find something incredibly new and different and start using it. The bacteria that do not have the (now useless) resistance to penicillan will suffer more than the bacteria without.
  • Wait a sec...how does a bug eat radioactive waste and make it inert? The atomic nuclei are still unstable; they'll still decay, releasing radiation; the best you can do is store it in some kind of glass and stick it somewhere where the gammas won't affect human beings. At least, I think that's the case. Can someone help me out here?

  • I find it rather strange that any Bacteria would
    affect the harmful effects of radioactive material.
    I don't see how biological processes can, in any
    way, affect the levels of radiation from a material,
    apart from possibly shielding it a trifle bit. The
    only way I know of to make radioactive material
    less dangerous (apart from just leaving it to its
    destiny for a couple of million years) is to bombard
    it with a particle cannon.


    But what do I know? And even if (most probably) this only is for "normal" toxic waste, this will probably still be enormously useful, unless companies use this method of reducing their pollution instead of actually reducing the use of dangerous substances in the first place. Those who live (hopefully most of us) can tell.

  • But, oh, these new bacteria... where the hell did they come from? Did they co-evolve with human beings and other creatures of the planet?

    Yes. Read the bloody article. The bacteria is believed to be two billion years old, but wasn't classified until 1956. It has been resistant to radiation like, forever.

    Can we even think of what will happen if a slight variance in the gene sequence of these modified bacteria caused them to, say, enjoy living in our intestines or in our lungs?

    Get a grip. Are you also afraid that grazing cows should get a hunger for human flesh and start rending people to shreds? The chances are just as great. These bacteria apparently resist mutations - that's what keeps them alive in all the radiation.

    Will their taste for petroleum-based wastes expand to other areas, such as some obscure chemical in the lining of our cell walls? If you can answer those questions, please tell me. I'd like to know.

    Bacteria doesn't talk, otherwise they could phone up some of the Streptococcus variants that already eat flesh.

    Some people need to worry about real problems.

  • No one complains when bacteria are used to produce antibiotics. No one
    complains when bacteria is used to produce food. Why not get all fired up
    over that?


    Heh, actually, a lot of people have been complaining about that - as antibiotic resistant bacteria have arisen to make life more difficult for those trying to kill them.

    We're going about it all wrong, from an evolutionary standpoint. It's much, much better for us in the long run to keep the bacteria weak and the weak humans dead. Of course, this won't happen, and because it hasn't happened, we will pay the consequences - we are breeding organisms that are more fit to exist in our biological niche than we are. Whee!

    --
    blue, host.
  • What the oil eating bacteria die after they eat all of their only source of food.

    Though I agree with your 'paranoia' that freak mutations could develop to do some unexpected things. I doubt that a petrol-eating critter will suddenly change it's fundamental means of nutrition, but a strain might develop to eat other, related, materials. Instead of crude oil in the presence of salt water, such a strain might consume gasoline or plastics, possibly without needed salt or water. Brief flashback to Andromeda Strain. Or it might munch on fish-oil. ;)

    But then again, odds are that the mutation(s) needed to make an impact on 'US' would never paddle back to shore. If anything, I'm sure that the bacteria we release into 'the wild' would not be of the radiation resistant variety. More likely, they'd be highly sensitive to UV, so that once the spill is cleared, the sunlight bakes whatever didn't starve. Maybe salt is the poison.

    Interesting point nonetheless, but so speculative, that except for the usual could vs should argument, we have no input or insight into how it is.
  • I haven't the foggiest. IANAchemist, and it's been a while since I've cracked a book on the subject, or had the original conversation for that matter.

    From the description he gave, the iron particles are moved around by the magnetic field, acting much as a filter. They end up clumping together with the filtrate, sink and (I presume) hold the crud in place as the water flows by. When the field is shut down, there's your contaminant/iron sludge, and much cleaner water.

    Rinse, lather, repeat. After several iterations (or a long enough pipe), the water is equivalently clean as with traditional filtration methods. The sludge is processed to recover iron and contaminants. Being a ChemE, I'd imagine he's most involved with sludge processing, since the rest sounds like a purely physical process. Anyhoo, it's supposed be be really great for oils, biologicals (sewage) and all sorts of particulate pollution.

    Don't know what use the process is for dissolved compounds and toxins. Except that if the iron is somehow coated or serves as a catalyst of some sort... But now I'm completely guessing, so I'll leave it at that.

    Neat thing is that there are very few moving parts in the system, and no filters to clean/replace per se. I'd imagine that water flowing at a gentle decline, with the occasional magnetic pulse sent in the opposite direction via wire wound around the pipe or some elaboration on that theme.
  • by jabber (13196) on Wednesday December 29, 1999 @03:29PM (#1434659) Homepage
    Heh, interesting mental picture. Bacteria eating radioactive compounds, and crapping out same, contained in Boron-infused buckyballs. Possibly bonded with Iron, or some other compound that would make it easier to separate from soil|liquid, and physically contain.

    A ChemE friend of mine is working on a method of purifying chemically contaminated water by mixing fine Iron fillings into it, and running it through a variable magnetic field. Apparently this works extremely well for many contaminants, and is quite cheap to do (once you've got a site built, that is). Hence the above Iron idea.
  • But now that Bt is continuously present in whole fields of Monsanto potatoes, the insects in those field will be continuously exposed to Bt. Therefore it is only a matter of time before they develop "resistance" and become immune to Bt's toxic effects.
    Yeah, I've heard about this problem, and it sounds like they may have a point on this one.

    In general though, I do think people react with excessive hysteria to the idea of biologically engineered foods. I don't trust most of the alarms that I hear sounded about these things, in part because I know how badly the technophobes have exaggerated in the past (nuclear power for me is the canonical example: it's the issue on which the left forever lost my trust as a source of information).

    It *would* be nice to have a good way of evaluating technical-public policy questions, but we aren't anywhere near it yet. If you haven't read anything like this yet, you might want to look at Eric Drexler on "Science Courts"/"Fact Forums". [islandone.org]

    I know that you think that people who question this are just "old-fashioned" or crazy but really I think it is good to educate yourself in the opposition's view.
    No, I don't think you're "old-fashioned", I think that the anti-tech attitude is really pretty modern. If anything I'm being "retro" in this thread.

    And as for understanding the opposition: Sure, I do what I can. Time is always the problem, no?

  • by doom (14564) <doom@kzsu.stanford.edu> on Wednesday December 29, 1999 @04:39PM (#1434661) Homepage Journal
    Ok folks, here's the problem: It is not OK to be making all of this radioactive crap in the first place.
    My understanding is that the radioactive crap isn't exactly created by the nuclear industry. It's there naturally in the ground, it gets dug up and concentrated, the radioactivity runs down a bit inside the plant, and then you get to try and pick a safe place to put what's leftover. Think of it as an environmental clean-up program, gathering together poisonous material and stashing it out of the way.

    Sure, I know, we all need energy and nuclear is cleaner than blah blah blah.....
    If you really know this, it doesn't seem to have sunk in. The fact that we worry about where to put nuclear waste is an advantage of nuclear power. There is no "coal waste disposal" problem because it's just assumed that it will all be dumped into the air (including radioactives particles embedded in the coal). This causes kilodeaths every year in the US, but somehow this is all shrugged off in comparision to nuclear power, which *might* cause kilodeaths *if* something went radically wrong.

  • by doom (14564) <doom@kzsu.stanford.edu> on Thursday December 30, 1999 @12:05AM (#1434662) Homepage Journal
    That means you make the atoms go *pop* and you get a whole pandemonium of even more radioactive and/or poisonous substances.
    Which decay relatively rapidly into the Uranium that you don't seem to be too concerned about. In general the hot stuff decays fastest (the stories you hear about it taking a gazillion years for, say, plutonium to disappear are the figures for it to all turn into lead, not for it to turn back into uranium).

    Think about the thermodynamics of the situation for a moment. The plants produce energy, the energy comes from converting radioactivity into heat. So the total amount of radioactivity has to decline, right?

    And Uran dispersed somewhere underground is a lot less problematic than thousands of hyperradioactive barrels stashed somewhere.
    Ah, but why is the stuff sitting above ground in barrels? Because everyone is too nervous about putting it back into the ground somewhere, because it might leak out somehow or other. What about the danger of the natural ores "leaking"? You never see these two compared... the radioactives are supposed to just magically appear as a by-product of the nukes.

    And noone said Coal plants are a good thing, so please stop talking past the issue he mentioned.
    Check. It does appear that the original poster knows more about this than I gave him credit for.

    So let me address "the issue", which is evidentally that prevention is better than repair. But is there really a difference? The clean-up technologies don't neatly separate from the production technologies. For example if you're really good at cleaning up stray particles of radioactive metals, you may be able to do it inside the gates of the plant. So that's prevention, right?

    And then there's the question of prevention of *what*. The whole energy business is part of a centuries old effort to prevent things like death by exposure, starvation, etc (it's not all about racing around in SUVs to sit in front of CRTs). Would it have been better to have, say, never learned to burn coal?

    Unless you're some sort of anti-human "deep ecologist" or something, the answer is "hell no". The history of technology is a history of juggling evils, ameliorating some problems at the expense of causing other (hopefully lesser) problems, which we may then ameliorate at a later date. Over the centuries, this juggling act has clearly been a big win for the industrialized world, more than doubling our lifespan and changing our lives from a hand-to-mouth existance to ones with the luxury to waste time scoring debating points on slashdot.

  • This is lots of fine info and all that, but of little relevance to this topic. The topic is about a bacterium that has been studied for cleaning up waste generated during the manhatten project. Waste handling practices back then were pretty dreadful, so there are many instances of radioactive and hazardous (in the chemical sense) "mixed" wastes. This bacterium is being studied to treat the hazardous portion of these mixed wastes.

    This has nothing to do with living better, more sustainable lives right now (unless you live next to Hanford, that is!). And it has nothing to do with removing or otherwise treating radioactivity.
  • by Jon_S (15368) on Wednesday December 29, 1999 @03:42PM (#1434664)
    That this bacterium can withstand such high levels of radiation is truly unique. However, not much else about it is. Bacteria are routinely used in site cleanups. The most common use of bacteria is the degradation of organic compounds, primarily hydrocarbons. In this case, the hydrocarbons are aerobically transformed to carbon dioxide and water. Other compounds are also biodegradable to more or less extents. Chlorinated compounds are difficult (primarily due to the steric hindrance caused by the large chlroine atoms), but are subject mainly to anaerobic degradation through reductive dechlorination, or cometabolic degradation.

    Now what this article is discussing is a bacterium that transforms mercury. There is also a lot of literature about "metals biodegradation", but of course, metals are elements, and can not be destroyed. What happens in "metals biodegradation" is that the metals are transformed into different oxidation states that are less toxic or harmful. For example, hexavalent chromium is significantly more toxic than the trivalent form.

    In the case of mercury, the main concern is methylated mercury versus elemental or ionic mercury. Methylmercury is the most toxic form since it can bioaccumulate (essentially acting like an organic due to its methyl groups) and thus more easily get taken up ny living organisms (nothing is toxic to you unless you get it in your body by ingestion, inhalation, or through dermal absorption. This excludes radiation, of course). So I am guessing that this bacterium somehow demethylates methylated mercury. It probably produces elemental mercury (i.e. liquid mercury) which is less likely to be ingested, or else some sort of mercurous or mercuric salt that is insoluble (mercuric phosphate, maybe?) and not likely to be remetabolized into the methyl form.
  • i think he meant "US" as in the direct object of "we" (with emphasis). not "US" as in the United States.
  • When you break down radioactive elements, does the radiaction stop? IE, will it then no longer have a halflife? (And it probably won't even have a Quake 1 opensource either....:)
    http://www.bombcar.com It's where it is at.
  • There's a book co-written by Kevin J. Anderson called 'Ill Wind' about a bug designed to clean up an oil spill which then goes on to eat all petrolium(sp) based products. When I read it I though it was pretty far fetched (lead on to gloom and doom and social breakdown) but reading this makes me want to re-evaluate that.
    ----
    "War doesn't determine who's right, just who's left"
  • The general idea in bio-remediation is that the bacteria consumes complex compounds that are diffused over a wide area. The result is that either the bacterium releases its "waste" by-products of metabolism as (for example) a gas or else accumulates the radioactive elements within itself. In the first scenario, the gas might either be harvested in a fermentation/growth chamber or else just allowed to blow off into the atmosphere. In the second I'm not sure what the plan would be.
  • I was under the impression that toxic/radioactive waste was often stored in solid state (ie. encased in glass, or as metals) The D.O.E. has huge tracts of contaminated soil to deal with, relatively low level in some cases, yet still not meeting the guidelines. So, as these millions of tons of soil are not realistically cleanable by a mechanical process the idea of growing a bug in the soil that blows off radioactive gas to diffuse into the atmosphere is attractive (to some people) as a waste management strategy. What worries me is that once there are technologies to deal with this gross pollution governmental bodies become more lax about not creating the pollution in the first place!
  • It's not making radioactive elements inert. The article was confusingly worded. What it is doing is breaking down complex molecules for its foodstuffs. The waste products from its metabolism are then (for example) radioactive CO2 and H20, or more exotic gases and liquids. But in the case of the gas, it just diffuses into the atmosphere. So, it's a handy way of dealing with tons of soil in situ. The bacteria is just a nice little miniature factory for breaking up the larger, more complex molecules containing radioactive atoms and pumping it out of the soil into the air
  • Yes it does. A compound can be composed of radioactive atoms. It is true that the bug does not transmute the atoms/elements, but it _does_ consume the compounds. It eats them, catabolizes them into simpler materials. These are not more tame as you suggest. They are still composed of radioactive atoms. These waste products then diffuse, as radioactive gases into the atmosphere.
  • locking them into a form that was not as likely to spread I think the idea is to make it more likely to spread. The problem is that the contaminated soils are too concentrated to be considered safe and not concentrated enough that they can be locked up in a small area. Solution, diffuse the radioactive elements into the atmosphere as gases, vapours.
  • I especially like your third point. There is a fourth one though. A lot of the "engineering" being done is , as in the case here, to make the bacterium resistant to something: herbicides, toxic metals, radioactivity, whatever. The engineered organism does something "good" with this newly acquired resistance. What happens though if it transfers the resistance to a "bad" organism? Until recently, this type of genetic exchange between different species (Horizontal Transfer) was thought to have occured infrequently. Now, however, phylogeneticists suspect that it is quite common and that there have been many instances in the evolution of life. So it is a plausible worry.
  • With this insertion, it can also be assured that the trait is not mutatable. How? mutation like this doesn't seem to be covered in the primitive reproductive act of bacteria, only in archaea and eukarya. A mutation like what? What sort of mutations are excluded by bacterial reproduction? What about Lateral Gene Transfer?
  • So, how does the iron become bonded to the contaminant? Sounds interesting.
  • If a bacteria begins as succeptible to certain antibiotics, the only way this can be changed is through the lateral gene transfer you refer to I disagree. I assume that you are thinking along some sort of teleological lines where the susceptible bacterium has to be exposed to the antibiotic _before_ it mutates. But the bacterium could easily be in an environment which does not contain the antibiotic, it would then mutate, then possibly be exposed to the antibiotic and then be found to be resistant.
  • I have a question then. What happens when organic compounds are placed beside a radioactive source such as one of the transition metals? Would there not be a certain percentage of the C,O,H in the (say decaying vegetable fibres and microbes) which were converted to their radioactive isotopes by this?
  • These enhancements only stay around when there is some positive benefit Not strictly true. Even if there is no selective advantage to a particular trait there is no inevitable loss of that trait. In fact, if the trait is even negative, then it can take a long time to select that trait out of the population. There are many caveats to this: population size and reproduction mechanism being the two most obvious. Suppose that in 5 years 50% of all bacteria are resistant to penicillan then we find something incredibly new and different and start using it. The bacteria that do not have the (now useless) resistance to penicillan will suffer more than the bacteria without. I totally disagree. I see no link between having/not-having penicillin resistance and the ability to survive "something incredibly new".
  • For some reason the Greens don't like this ... nuclear accidents are far more problematic for humans than the environment in general, I have to wonder what the fuss is all about. Wild thought: suppose "Greens" are concerned for humans? Suppose the intent of many involved in environmental campaigns is to create and maintain pleasant environments for humans? I think you may be relying on a stereotype of extremist EarthFirst'ers or somethings.
  • but if these bacterium can eat just about everything, survive a nuclear blast and still keep on ticking...what happens if they set their sights on US?

    i'm not trying to be fatalistic, but if someone decides that they CAN do something, where are the checks and balances to determine if they SHOULD (to paraphrase Jurassic Park)?

    i like the idea of dropping a handful of bacterium into an oil spill to help clean it up... but again, what do the bacteria do AFTER they're done with the oil?
  • by the eric conspiracy (20178) on Wednesday December 29, 1999 @03:11PM (#1434682)
    Bioremediation has been around as long as there have been septic tanks and cesspools - it is certainly nothing new.

    The concept of engineering organisms to do this has been around in the '60s.

    The first person to do this using early genetic engineering methods was Dr. Ananda Chakrabarty. He used a method of selection to develop a bacterial culture that feeds on PCB's in the late 1960s.

    Dr. Chakrabarty later became famous because he became the first person to patent a genetically engineered life form. The case (Diamond vs. Chakrabarty), ultimately decided by the Supreme Court was fought tooth and nail by the patent office. It is one of the landmark patent cases of the 20th century. US 3,813,316 is the patent number.

  • You are confused because because the article is, shall we say, less than clear. Here is a better one [sciencenews.org] from Science News [sciencenews.org]. Note that this is a year old. The gene sequence appears to be underway or near completion. There have been no results of the remediation studies posted to the web. Here is the ab stract of the study [nature.com] referred to by the CNN article. It's fairly preliminary. The researchers have made the bug and done a few lab tests. Now they need to do some field trials.

    The US DOE has a huge problem; they need to clean up thousands of contaminated sites, all with significant radiation levels. Cleaning up the heavy metals and organo-chlorines is tough enough without the radiation hazard.

    The brute-force-and-ignorance approach is to "scoop and bag", remove the contaminated soil and put it in a sealed landfill. This is enormously expensive.

    Bio-remediation offers a partial solution. You clean up the organic compounds, mostly clenaing fluids very similar to dry-cleaning solvent, by breaking them down on site. Heavy metal clean-up involves changing the chemical form of the pollutant to something less toxic or easy to get out of the soil by washing. The microbes have no effect on radioactivity. You still need to remove the radiation hazards, it's just less (chemically) toxic after the bugs have chewed on it.

    New strains of D. radiodurans have been engineered to do both jobs. In optimal conditions with a really good innoculum, microbial remediation can almost entirely destroy the pollutants. In poor conditions (cold, no food or water) or with the wrong bugs, very little may happen. Training innocula, as microbial cultures are called, for a specific pollutant is time consuming and difficult.

    Kind Regards,
  • Concentrating- in my distinctly layman's view- involves boiling water out of something and ending up with a more potent form of what you had before. Bombarding things with neutrons in a multimillion dollar process goes above and beyond concentrating.
    1) Can someone give a good quantitative value of the ammount of radioactive particles we spew into the air by burning fossil fuels every year. I remember hearing something on Discovery a long time ago and it was obscene.
    2) Congrats to everyone who has posted on this story. This is some of the most focused, intelligent posting I've seen on /. in a long time.

    -Barry
  • What _else_ does this 'superbug' do? I think I'd like to know what it produces as by-products, and what other environment effects it may have, before we start throwing them around every toxic waste dump we havn't yet exported.

    Besides, I was under the impression that toxic/radioactive waste was often stored in solid state (ie. encased in glass, or as metals) - how is a bacteria going to deal with this? The article even says that they won't deal with metals.

    I don't know about you guys, but I'm a little wary of throwing bioengineered bateria around, especially if they may not be addressing the real problem.
  • Petroleum-eating bugs already exist in huge quantities and variety, according to

    The Deep Hot Biosphere [cornell.edu].

  • When the bacteria digest whatever it is that it has been targeted to digest (mercury in the article, though it mentions that it could be targeted at other elements), the stuff's gonna be compounded differently when it comes out the other end. I don't know enough about radiochemistry to know if your average radioactive element will continue to be radioactive when it is in a different molecular arrangement than it was in the original waste form. But, from a non-radioactive standpoint, and you're just talking about toxic elements and combinations thereof, bonding it differently makes a big difference. For a nice and simple example, look at sodium (a soft metal that reacts violently with water) and chlorine (a greenish gas that is extremely poisonous and corrosive). On their own, rather dangerous. Together, they're table salt.

  • We have developed a radiation resistant bacterium for the treatment of mixed radioactive wastes containing
    ionic mercury. The high cost of remediating radioactive waste sites from nuclear weapons production
    has stimulated the development of bioremediation strategies using Deinococcus radiodurans,
    the most radiation resistant organism known. As a frequent constituent of these sites is the highly toxic
    ionic mercury (Hg) (II), we have generated several D. radiodurans strains expressing the cloned Hg (II)
    resistance gene (merA) from Escherichia coli strain BL308. We designed four different expression vectors
    for this purpose, and compared the relative advantages of each. The strains were shown to grow in the
    presence of both radiation and ionic mercury at concentrations well above those found in radioactive
    waste sites, and to effectively reduce Hg (II) to the less toxic volatile elemental mercury. We also demonstrated
    that different gene clusters could be used to engineer D. radiodurans for treatment of mixed
    radioactive wastes by developing a strain to detoxify both mercury and toluene. These expression systems
    could provide models to guide future D. radiodurans engineering efforts aimed at integrating several
    remediation functions into a single host.

    What the bacteria actually does is detoxify chemical species _in the presence of radioactive waste_ it does not turn radioactive isotopes into stable ones.
  • > only if the kind of radiation youre talking
    > about is neutron emission (like from a fission
    > decay). any other (ie gamma beta alpha)
    > radiation cannot transmute other elements and
    > therefore cannot make them radioactive. think
    > food irradiation and microwave ovens, your
    > coffee isnt radioactive after you pull it out of
    > the microwave.

    Microwave oven does not produce alpha/beta/gamma
    radiation. It produces high frequency radiowaves
    that heat water molecules in the food.

  • On a tangentially related note, some work has been done on stabilizing radioactive waste prior to burial or storage.

    The CSIRO in Australia a few years ago developed a material called "synrock". As the name suggests, it's essentially a synthetic "rock" in which the waste is embedded. It's chemical and physical properties are supposed to be such that the waste won't move (well, not much). Presumably it would have properties somewhat similar to uranium ores.
  • Well, the problem is with a lot of our "solutions" is that they turn out to be worse than the "problems", although it is admittedly hard to think of something worse than a massive oil spill. The problem with the environment is every place is subtly different, and an organism that performs a certain way in one place will perform identically in another.

    One of the classic cases was the importation of the cane toad from Hawaii to Australia for control of sugar cane eating pests. It turned out that in Australia at the time of year the cane toad like to inhabit the sugar cane, the insect it was supposed to eat happened to be living too high on the plant for the toad to eat. However the toad did develop a taste for native species, and had no natural predators. The rest, as they say, is history.

    I think there is promise in the oil eating bacteria, but I am personaly charry of releasing a genetically engineered version of what the article describes as one of the toughest organisms on the planet, especially when that organism can reproduce exponentially and asexually, and can interchange genes with other species as bacteria commonly do.

  • This is exactly correct! And what I said above in not so clear terms. Thanks for the better explanation.

    Simply, the genome of bacteria doesn't allow for genetic mutation to the point that an organism can so radically change from what has been created. At least, not in this sort of time span under current climate conditions (i.e., *not* primordial soup).

    So, as long as those creating the bacteria are responsible enough to create them with a means of valid destruction, there's no problem.

    These bacteria aren't simply going to decide that they can't be destroyed. They live, they do what they have to in order to gain energy, they die.
  • by Dopefish (33181) on Wednesday December 29, 1999 @02:58PM (#1434693)
    I'm not sure if this is being done, but, one good thing about creating your own life is creating a way to make these life easily destructable.
    However, unlike Jurassic Park, it can be done in such a way (by inserting DNA of certain protein defficient bacteria) that it is certain they can be killed with anti-biotics. With this insertion, it can also be assured that the trait is not mutatable.

    I could be wrong, but, a mutation like this doesn't seem to be covered in the primitive reproductive act of bacteria, only in archaea and eukarya.

    The explanation, of course, is a lot more complicated dependent on what type of bacteria (gram-negative or positive) are being used and what the cell-wall composition is. NAM-NAG, B4, etc.
  • by Dopefish (33181) on Wednesday December 29, 1999 @04:07PM (#1434694)
    How?
    A mutation like what?


    If a bacteria begins as succeptible to certain antibiotics, the only way this can be changed is through the lateral gene transfer you refer to. Basically, this is done in most bacteria by the exchange of plasmids between bacteria. Plasmids are composed of DNA and exist on and around the cell-wall of all bacteria. These plasmids encode enzymes that break down organic material, and also encode enzymes that destroy antibodies.

    This is a trait present in both gram-negative and gram-positive bacteria, and is how anti-bacterial resistance is passed (penicillin, etc.)

    What is being theorized -- and what the control relies upon (AFAIK)is that you can somehow inhibit these plasmids from exchanging -- *given that you are creating this organism*. How this is done, I don't really know.

    So, what I'm saying is that a bacteria can't mutate to change its cell wall and the composition of it. It can be changed in a very specialized way to become resistant to certain chemicals (as with anti-biotic resistance), and this is why plasmid exchange must be inhibited.

    I think. :)
  • heard a story before about a place in asia where radioactive material got into the rebar factory and was used in the building of a number of apartment houses.

    Instead of tearing them down, the government compensated the occupants by not requiring them to pay any income tax.

    so I have no way to get any proof. Maybe it's not true, but would *you* raise your family in a radioactive house just to escape paying taxes?



    Ever eat a fish that was mutated by radiation? Ever go scuba diving next to a nuclear reactor outlet? PEOPLE DO :(

    --
    radioactive waste - it's not just for breakfast anymore
  • Now imagine what a Beowolf-cluster of those bacteria could do!

    :)

    Thimo
    --
  • I heard about this years ago. They used to call them IP patents.

  • by WillAffleck (42386) on Wednesday December 29, 1999 @03:16PM (#1434698)
    While some amongst us might think it silly, there were recently two men killed in Tacoma, Washington by flesh-eating bacteria. It was carried on the AP and Reuters wires and just happened.

    One of the problem with antibiotics is that many strains of bacteria and virii are becoming immune to commonly-used antibiotics, to the point where doctors are now warned not to use the "new" antibiotics except when they know the infectious agent is already immune to the commonly prescribed antibiotics.

    More people died from the Spanish Flu than from WWI, after all. And more people died in WWII from disease than any other cause.

    Without antibiotics, many of the advances in civilization would have probably not survived. It gave us this breather until we could start working on genetic defenses and tailored anti-viral agents.
  • There are natural, oil-eating bacteria already! Oil is, after all, an organic chemical.

    After the Exxon Valdez disaster, bacteria moved in and started gobbling up all that oil. Soon other species in the food chain came along and began devouring them... and now that area is even richer in some respects than it was before.

    Really, what was more catastrophic than the oil spill was the OIL CLEANUP. They sprayed hot water and detergent all over everything up there... both of which really helped to sterilize things. It was only something to make good PR, while in fact it HARMED the local ecosystem far worse than the oil spill.

    Such is the way of most Greenpeacers and other Green groups... ignorant ranting and actions taken in matters that they know extremely little about.

    -Rob Swenson

    (Whose father is an environmental attorney that holds several special, additional certifications. One that only five people in the U.S. have obtained)
  • The pink-colored bacterium smells like rotten cabbage. It was discovered in canned meat in 1956.
    Spam *is* good for something! :)
  • What if this bug got into say, the storage tank
    at a dairy farm, for example. Or maybe the
    pipes that carry peanut butter in a candy bar
    factory?

    It would be IMPOSSIBLE to disinfect the
    equipment. Resistant to radiation. Resistant to
    heat. Resistant to harsh chemicals.

    What if someone took this bug, merged it with
    anthrax and dropped it over New York?

    I'm not saying that this kind of research shouldn't be done, but think a little bit before
    saying "kewl!"
  • Sorry, if this topic posted already, but I could not find any.

    I've heard the bacteria exchange their genes in extreme environment through sex pili as you can see here [snu.ac.kr]. IMHO, if we have lots of genetically engineered bacteria, the possibility that the modified gene go wild among lots of *other* bacteria goes high. This is one of my nightmare.

    Now the bacteria supposed to be applied in very hash environment. Hence the higher possibility. Hence the higher danger. Right(or not)?

    Does Anyone has the knowledge/experience of this issue?

    Please return me my sleeps or, at least, a reasonable reason of my sleepless nights!

  • Learned something new here - Something will outlive the cockroaches...

    Remember having to open up aircraft fuel tanks in SEA because bacteria were growing in the jet fuel and plugging up the works.
  • It is almost impossible for a chemical reaction to render a radioactive material inert. I say _almost_ because it IS impossible for a chemical reaction to actually cause an atom's nucleus to be converted to a more stable form (that would be a nuclear reaction), but it is possible for a chemical reaction to bind the unstable atoms with atoms of another material (say, lead) that will render it harmless.

    Unfortunately, most of the materials that would do this are harmful to the poor little selves involved in this process, and it would take one heck of a tough bacteria to survive hanging out in a radioactive environment in the first place. (either that, or a continual supply of new bacteria)

    I can just see them in the lab, mixing up the latest batch of plutonium, lead, and barley agar.



  • Although many scenarios have been presented for horrible results, none of them have been particularly realistic. Let me present a more realistic one:

    These bacteria have been specifically genetically tailored to have a short lifespan. Lets say that genetic tailoring gets reversed in the wild by a couple of stray gamma rays. (they don't generally remove the genes, they just "switch them off")

    Now we have a bacteria with a normal lifespan that feeds on petroleum and petroleum byproducts, feeding on an immense supply of food and multiplying at a normal logrithmic manner. It doesn't take much imagination to have a few of these little critters surviving to migrate to an area where they could start feeding on plastic bags and other things that get tossed onto our beaches.

    It would be quite annoying to suddenly discover that a bacteria has been created that eats the plastic that we rely on to keep our food fresh, huh?

    (This scenario provided to you by Larry Niven, actually, from the second Ringworld novel)

    RR
  • From a Simpson's episode:

    Bart: Aw, cheer up, Dad. You make a great hippie.
    Homer: Aw, you're just saying that.
    Bart: No, really. You're lazy and self-righteous ...
    Lisa: ... and the soles of your feet are jet black!

    Before you dismiss this as a troll or a flame, think about it. Twice.

    Why discuss American diets and then mention your organic prefs? Is that really on topic. Your point is very well made with only the first and last paragraphs.
  • If you really know this, it doesn't seem to have sunk in. The fact that we worry about where to put nuclear waste is an advantage of nuclear power.

    No really it has. I am not saying that nuclear power is worse than coal/oil/whatever. I am saying that we often look to solve tecnology problems with more technology. This leads to a downward spiral of "solutions" when we should be looking at the causes of problems.

    BTW, your comment about waste being good because it is not in the air is a good one but will probably go unnoticed. I just want the people who develop technology to realize that they are probably not going to fix the world with their new toys. Prevention.

    -pos

    The truth is more important than the facts.
  • Think about the thermodynamics of the situation for a moment. The plants produce energy, the energy comes from converting radioactivity into heat. So the total amount of radioactivity has to decline, right?

    To put what sumocide said a little clearer, radioactivity is an emission from the atom's nucleus. Fission is not the process of collecting these emissions to heat water. Fission is forcing this breakdown in a controlled chain reaction to heat water. Most importantly, the atom you end up with is not gauranteed to be safer in any way.

    Check. It does appear that the original poster knows more about this than I gave him credit for.


    This is the problem with slashdot. gotta love it. =)

    The clean-up technologies don't neatly separate from the production technologies. For example if you're really good at cleaning up stray particles of radioactive metals, you may be able to do it inside the gates of the plant. So that's prevention, right?

    Good point. The reason I brought up this horribly offtopic thread is that we make the assuption that we fully understand the problem. We fully understand the effects of genetic engineering. Check out this to see what I'm saying:

    Seeds of destruction [garynull.com]

    an excerp:** But now that Bt is continuously present in whole fields of Monsanto potatoes, the insects in those field will be continuously exposed to Bt.
    Therefore it is only a matter of time before they develop "resistance" and become immune to Bt's toxic effects.
    The mechanism of resistance is well understood because over 500 insects have become resistant to one pesticide or another since 1945. Not every potato beetle will be killed by eating Monsanto's pesticidal potatoes. A few hardy beetles will survive. When those few resistant beetles mate with other resistant beetles, a new variety of potato beetle will spring into being and it will thrive by eating Monsanto's potatoes. At that point, Bt will have lost its effectiveness as a pesticide. Then Monsanto will start marketing some new "silver bullet" to control the Colorado potato beetle. But what will the nation's organic farmers do? For private gain, Monsanto will have destroyed a public good --the natural pesticidal properties of Bt. Monsanto scientists acknowledged to the NEW YORK TIMES that the Bt-containing potato will create Bt- resistant potato beetles. They know exactly what they are trying to do. They are hoping to make a mint selling Bt-laced potatoes and, in the process, depriving their competitors (organic farmers) of an essential, time-honored tool. The strategy is brilliant, and utterly ruthless.

    ** For decades, Monsanto and other agrichemical companies have relentlessly promoted farming systems aimed at making farmers dependent on
    synthetic chemicals. With the enthusiastic support and complicity of USDA, the plan worked beautifully.


    Sounds a little like Microsoft. =) They even talk about it in terms of OS's. Furthermore, there is evidence that genetically engineered corn is killing the monarch butterfly, and bees feeding off genetically engineered food live shorter lives and have less ability to recognise flower smells. Do you think the genetic engineers really reserched that? hell no.

    I know that you think that people who question this are just "old-fashioned" or crazy but really I think it is good to educate yourself in the opposition's view. Sometimes it is over the top and reactionary. Much like your average linux zealot.

    flame on.

    -pos


    The truth is more important than the facts.
  • by pos (59949) on Wednesday December 29, 1999 @03:34PM (#1434709)
    Ok folks, here's the problem: It is not OK to be making all of this radioactive crap in the first place. Sure, I know, we all need energy and nuclear is cleaner than blah blah blah..... but really this is how we get into this mess in the first place. A lot of technology only exists for fixing the problems that we created. I so much wish that instead of sprawling out all over this planet we would stop and look at what we are doing to ourselves and our lives. Technology is fun and all but at what cost?

    Americans have horrible diets. They eat 50% more meat than 100 years ago and 50% less fruit/veggies than 100 years ago because meat used to be somthing special that you couldn't afford to eat every night. Now, what is the answer to america's health problems? (Jeopardy! music)

    What are: fat burning "natural herbal remedies", fat blocking drugs, and WOW! Potato Chips!

    This whole get rid of nuclear waste problem should really be: Let's find ways not to produce so much nuclear waste. While we are at it: Let's find ways to eat better, Lets find ways to live healthier, and Lets find ways to see problems as being caused by something preventable.

    I am tired of the band-aid, "shoot those cows full of antibiotics so we can treat them worse without killing them; their antibiotic resistant bacteria will never travel to humans" kind of mentality. The problem isn't that we have oil spills. The problem is that we haven't genetically engineered enough oil eating bacteria. I try to eat organic but it costs 2x as much. You know what, I think it is worth it knowing that I at least try to support sustainable farming practices.

    Humans are so egocentric. All of theese huge corporations run by arrogant jerks. The problem with self made men (and women) is that they tend to worship their creator. At least some corporations have some conscience.

    -pos

    The truth is more important than the facts.

  • The "radiodurans" part of the name refers to the fact that the bacteria can withstand "1.5 million rads of gamma radiation, or about 3,000 times the lethal dose for humans."

    Way cool! Eventually we might learn enough to genetically alter ourselves and acquire similar resistance. Imagine cheap housing and public buildings built with radioactive waste instead of wood and steel. :-)

    ======
    "Rex unto my cleeb, and thou shalt have everlasting blort." - Zorp 3:16

  • I heard of a similar project that performed artificial selection on bacteria (probably E. coli), exposing them to increasing concentrations of organic phosphates (the deadly kind... as opposed to the harmless). With trillions and trillions of progeny, a lucky mutation would lead to a strain that literally eats it for lunch. It's misguided to say that an unlucky mutation would eat people for lunch. We have immune systems, antibiotics, the CDC, NIH, and thousands of university and private laboratories in case something goes wrong. And if something does, Hollywood can make a movie about it to smear the name of science, which they will do either way.
  • Agrostis tenuis: a wild species of grass in Wales. It grows at the opening of abandoned mine shafts in soil contaminated with heavy metals. Only a few feet away, in the ordinary soil, grows its ancestor, which cannot tolerate the toxic soil.
    Campbell, Biology 4th ed. p. 417.
  • That's funny, Gold ore at least does. That's why people pan for gold in streams, it's ore that was in a deposit that leaked.

    I somehow find it hard to believe that Uranium ore is significantly more resistant to water action than Gold is.

    DB
  • They just die out, at least in the case of the 'oil-consuming' bacteria. Not only are they tailored to have extremely short lives, they have a tough time surviving on anything except oil. Additionally, these bacteria have the same environmental weaknesses as the parent organism they are derived from; succeptability to antibiotics, heat, microwave radiation, etc.

    The article should have dealt with this in more depth, especially given the current paranoia concerning bio-engineered food and cloning.
  • Thank you, you made my day :)
    *applause*

    ------
  • The advantages are several:
    • "Normal" toxic waste can be processed by bugs, but radioactive stuff would kill the bacteria. Splicing the bioremediation genes into a rad-hardened bug lets the bug eat the toxics even if they're mixed with radioactive stuff. If you have a bug that can eat all the benzene, toluene, and other stuff and turn them into CO2 and H2O, you've got a nice bio-friendly way to concentrate the radioactive leftovers.
    • The rad-hard bug may be able to incorporate and immobilize radioactive stuff that would otherwise leach through the soil; a normal bug would be killed by the radiation before it could process very much, even if it had an affinity.
    • By concentrating, reducing or otherwise altering the state of the radio-goo, the bugs may make it possible to do a much better job of isolating what's left.

    --
  • but if these bacterium can eat just about everything, survive a nuclear blast and still keep on ticking...what happens if they set their sights on US?
    From the article:
    The pink-colored bacterium smells like rotten cabbage. It was discovered in canned meat in 1956.

    It is believed to be 2 billion years old, making it one of Earth's earliest life forms. Scientists believe it evolved when Earth was bombarded with more radiation than today.

    Basically, this bug is really good at handling free radicals. If it was discovered in canned meat, it's probably anaerobic and wouldn't like humans too much. In any event, just because something is good at gene repair doesn't mean it could survive long with a human immune system looking for it. This bug has been in the environment thousands of times as long as humans have been on the earth; we've obviously learned to deal with them (on the biomolecular level). Teaching the bug a few new tricks like eating solvents or pesticides isn't going to make it better at invading humans, so we would appear to be quite safe.
    --
  • What if this bug got into say, the storage tank at a dairy farm, for example. Or maybe the pipes that carry peanut butter in a candy bar factory?
    It seems to be a natural soil bacterium, so it's probably gotten into every milk-tank and peanut-butter factory at one time or another. Normal cleaning and disinfectants appear to be more than sufficient to deal with it.
    --
  • What comes out of a reactor has less available energy in it than before, but it's dumping it really fast. Think of the difference between a candle flame and a bonfire; the power output of the bonfire makes it dangerous to be up close to it. You could burn the same mass of candles one at a time and barely keep your hands warm.

    Dumping the spent fuel back into the uranium mines is superficially attractive, if you don't care that the radioisotopes have a wide variety of chemical properties and many will not stay put under the same conditions as uranium. Not staying put is bad; you do not want this stuff in your drinking water, for example. Ideally you'd separate the stuff in the spent fuel according to its chemical properties and dispose of the stuff that needs disposal in the way which keeps it in one place until it's harmless. This also allows the unused uranium and the plutonium produced in the reactor to be recycled, keeping them out of the waste stream entirely. Check out this Argonne National Lab link [tms.org] for a technical look at what some of the waste-disposal technology might look like. For some reason the Greens don't like this, though. Given that nuclear power emits absolutely no CO2 and nuclear accidents are far more problematic for humans than the environment in general, I have to wonder what the fuss is all about.
    --

  • What happens when organic compounds are placed beside a radioactive source such as one of the transition metals? Would there not be a certain percentage of the C,O,H in the (say decaying vegetable fibres and microbes) which were converted to their radioactive isotopes by this? Unlikely. To convert hydrogen (protium) into its only radioactive isotope (tritium) you have to add two neutrons to it (fantasically unlikely to hit a single atom twice, especially since most radwaste isotopes are not neutron emitters). C-12 or C-13 into C-14 requires one or two neutrons as well. I'm not sure about oxygen, I'd have to check an isotope table and I don't have one handy; still, I doubt it very much. There are two possible ways of converting stable isotopes to radioactive ones by exposing them to non-neutron radiation. The first is gamma-activation, where a stable nucleus is kicked into a higher-energy metastable state by a gamma ray; when it decays to its base state, it emits another gamma ray. The other is by induced fission or neutron spallation (a particle or gamma kicks one or more nucleons out of the nucleus, yielding a radioactive nucleus). These processes are very inefficient even on the nuclei where they are possible.
    --
  • by Tau Zero (75868) on Wednesday December 29, 1999 @03:10PM (#1434721) Journal
    Breaking down a chemical compound does not change anything about the nuclei of the atoms from which it is made. If you have radioactive technetium salts and you convert them to technetium metal, it is still going to be just as radioactive as it was before. What changes is its solubility and other chemical properties. In the case of technetium the metal is insoluble, so you can immobilize it (and prevent it from leaching anywhere) by reducing it to the metallic state.
    --
  • by Tau Zero (75868) on Wednesday December 29, 1999 @04:04PM (#1434722) Journal
    These waste products then diffuse, as radioactive gases into the atmosphere.
    That only happens if the element in question is metabolized to a gas. I can only think of a few elements for which this is true:
    • Tritium (metabolized to water vapor)
    • Carbon-14 (metabolized to radioactive CO2)
    Radon and xenon are already gases (noble gases at that), so it makes no difference; they're already gone. Most radwaste is composed of alkali metals, alkali earths and transition metals with the occasional halogen thrown in (astatine, I-129, I-131). These will not be metabolized to gases, so they'd have to escape some other way.
    --
  • by Tau Zero (75868) on Wednesday December 29, 1999 @04:11PM (#1434723) Journal
    Damn, don't be so paranoid. There are bacteria that live in shit, but they don't find you appetizing. (Maybe you should feel insulted. ;-)

    If you'd read the article you'd know that D. Radiourans has been around for a couple billion years. Our entire evolution, from H. Sapiens Sapiens back to the first vertebrate, has been in an environment with D. Radiourans in it. You can stop worrying now, it's okay.
    --

  • by Tau Zero (75868) on Wednesday December 29, 1999 @03:20PM (#1434724) Journal
    Oil-eating bacteria have evolved quite naturally; you'll find them anywhere there are natural oil seeps. After they do their job, they become food for other things. Playing God? Well, yeah; if God had decided to play with supertankers full of crude, He would have made a hungry bug to eat the spills too! It's our problem, though, so we get to make the means to fix it.
    --
  • by hondo (77902)
    This topic is nothing new. I remember seeing this plastered all over that pitiful excuse of a magazine Popular Science. They thought it was the greatest thing since sliced bread - (well, they still think solar power is -neat-)

    It is possible to genetically engineer a carbon nased life form to consume what we humans deem to be toxic. It has been done over and over. Take for example that beer in your hand. Way back when, I mean WAY back (there are reports that beer is older than wine), the locals would take contamiated water and make beer out of it. The chamical process and yeast renders what ever foreign material in the water to be harmless to humans. Its also served as a good check - if you can make beer out of water, then the water should be fairly safe to drink.
  • Nice subject, eh? But seriously, there is a natural chemical compound in horseradish that will have the same effect on toxic/radioactive waste.

    The problem with implementation is that it's somewhat expensive to extract the compound.
  • by twjordan (88132) on Wednesday December 29, 1999 @03:21PM (#1434728)
    develop a bacteria that could break down microsoft into smaller more benign compounds!
  • All the oil-eating, radioactive-eating, etc bacteria are way overrated. The thing about them is that they all devour so little of the target substance, that they don't help nature *that* much. In the case of exxon valdeze, where the oil-eating bacteria were used, it is predicted that they will only speed up the clean-up process of the spill by a few days, and that nature would have done it just as effectively by itself.




    ---------------
  • They reported that the superbug strains proliferated when exposed to radioactive waste mixtures commonly found at weapons sites. The superbug does not neutralize radioactivity in metals.

    What the bug probably does is takes the radioactive elements and removes them from the other toxic elements. If you had a compound of (I'm no chemist here) mercury, cadmium and uranium, the bug would break it down into a uranium compound, a mercury compound and a cadmium compound. This will allow you to easily process and dispose of all three without having to separate them by other means.

    Think about processing some huge lump of data, or writing code. Its easier to break the problem up into small, easy to process pieces and work your way through rather than writing everything into the main() function. It is easier to process uranium that it is to process uranium, cadmium, and mercury all mixed into one compound.

    IIRC, the problem with radioactivity and living tissue is that the radiation breaks down the weak hydrogen links in the DNA (I read all this long ago, sorry for mistakes) and the DNA reforms itself into arrangements that don't allow the cell to function properly, killing it, or mutates it in such a way that its offspring don't function properly, killing them, or cause a malfunction like cancer.

    Previous studies have demonstrated that its radiation resistance probably involves thousands of genes. Even when hundreds of portions of DNA are damaged by radiation, the microorganism can usually repair itself in a matter of hours, using redundant genetic codes to keep (hmm, article trimmed, not my fault)

    This is the coolest part about the bacteria, it prevents the malfunctioning that plague other organisms, like humans. Sign me up for gene therapy like this!!

  • Now I have to start working on a movie script about the consequences of bio-engineering an organism to control the consequences of nuclear power and atomic weaponry.

    Damn that gene that requires me to point these things out and damn that genome-mapping group of scientists for not finding and annhilating that gene.

    Now how can I bio-engineer a solution to this? ...

  • wouldn't it be cool if they could break the waste down into something useful and non-toxic... ... like say, McDonald's Mac Sauce. oh.. wait. nevermind.
  • If you read the article carefully, you see it does *not* affect the radioactivity: "The superbug does not neutralize radioactivity in metals." (Nor could it.) Reading between the lines, it is useful here for two reasons:

    It transforms heavy metals into less toxic forms (i.e. less prone to be absorbed by living organisms.) Some of those heavy metals could be radioactive.

    It is able to do the cleanup mentioned above, plus neutralizing organic toxins, in radioactive environments that would prevent other biological cleanup methods from working.

  • by Signail11 (123143) on Wednesday December 29, 1999 @02:47PM (#1434745)
    The genetically altered bacteria Deinococcus radiodurans does not consume radioactive compounds as the summary suggests. As physics assures us, it is [almost] impossible to alter the half-life of a radioactive compound or transmutate elements without massive equipment. OTOH, what these bacteria do is that they have been genetically customized to transform highly reactive heavy metal compounds into more tame and benign materials. The "radiodurans" part of the name refers to the fact that the bacteria can withstand "1.5 million rads of gamma radiation, or about 3,000 times the lethal dose for humans." Pretty amazing stuff.
  • US Microbiotics [http://www.bugsatwork.com/ [bugsatwork.com]], creators of the bacteria used to clean up oil spills have a few other nifty products on the market. Kinda cool to read, but you wonder, though the bacteria are engineered to be short-lived, what if something goes wrong?
  • A lot of things are MUCH more or less toxic to some animals than others. Dogs, for example, can eat half-rotten meat that would kill a human, but can be poisoned by chocolate or even baby formula!!! (synthetic galactose - they can't metabolize it properly... Owls are very resistant to cyanide but sensitive to DDT (which is actually not very toxic to humans, despite its reputation. SO, our notional superbugs may very well have their own non-obvious weakness (plain old oxygen, most likely...)
  • God (or whatever sentient being you like) did make a "hungry bug" for oil. The means to absorb spilled oil lies on every human being in their hair. Human hair is the perfect medium for oil; plenty of surface area, a natural attraction between the two, and a large abundance of it. There was a report a few years ago on 20/20 about a hairdresser who saved several bags of hair from his shop, and spent months coming up with several porous containers to hold the hair, while still allowing oil to pass through. He finally came upon a pair of his wife's nylon stockings. He first put an equal mix of oil and water in a kiddie pool out in his yard. He then put some hair in a pair of stockings, tied it off, and threw it in the pool. Within 10 minutes or so, the pool was essentially clean. The water was once again crystal clear, and the single tube of nylon and hair was saturated with all the oil. The report ended by saying the man had several offers from companies looking to use his invention. I haven't heard anything of it since, but it definitely peaked my interest.

Reference the NULL within NULL, it is the gateway to all wizardry.

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