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Biotech Earth Science

Bacteria Used To Make Radioactive Metals Inert 237

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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  • Interesting (Score:2, Interesting)

    by al0ha ( 1262684 ) on Thursday September 10, 2009 @01:17PM (#29380341) Journal
    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 Nadaka ( 224565 ) on Thursday September 10, 2009 @01:30PM (#29380501)

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

  • by ArbitraryDescriptor ( 1257752 ) on Thursday September 10, 2009 @01:41PM (#29380649)

    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 from an inhalation/water contamination perspective...

  • Re:Non-Toxic inert? (Score:3, Interesting)

    by im_thatoneguy ( 819432 ) on Thursday September 10, 2009 @02:22PM (#29381113)

    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.

  • Re:Bad article title (Score:1, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Thursday September 10, 2009 @02:30PM (#29381189)

    Inert chemically (not reactive).

    Heavy metals such as plutonium has a long decay period and are more dangerous from the chemical reactions they induce (replacing iron and calcium in the body) than by the mere radio activity.

    Radioactive heavy metals tend to evaporate easily (sublimation) just like iodine. Cleaning the fission or fusion by-products is complicated because common organisms are not used to them. The novelty is that some organisms can make the waste less dangerious and even use it for sustaining life

  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday September 10, 2009 @02:30PM (#29381195)

    A few years ago I was watching a documentation about some native pearl diver on one of those atolls(Bikini Atoll?) that later were used for nuclear weapons tests.
    He remembered how he used to dive with the (small) sharks and fish and how they used to be tame enough to pet them. But after the tests they became rabid and hyper-aggressive.

    Although that's technically not mutation I guess.

  • by Chazerizer ( 934553 ) on Thursday September 10, 2009 @02:40PM (#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.
  • by LanMan04 ( 790429 ) on Thursday September 10, 2009 @02:41PM (#29381327)

    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 Chris Burke ( 6130 ) on Thursday September 10, 2009 @02:50PM (#29381435) Homepage

    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 directly contradicted what they had explicitly told the reporter. This is because the reporter, who is always fully devoted to accurately representing the science, makes sure to continue consulting with the scientist at every point of authoring their article, and doesn't just phone up the researcher to ask a few quick questions and get a few sound bites then hang up and write whatever they want. And of course -- okay I can't go on.

    Feynman makes a lot of good points, and certainly scientists need to do a better job of interfacing with the press. But surely you can see a difference between a scientist embellishing their research or the uses for it in order to make it more exciting for the press, and a researcher failing to correct a misconception they may not have realized the reporter ever had, and the reporter deciding on their own to embellish the research to make it more exciting. One is the scientist being complicit in bad science journalism, the other is a scientist not being all-knowing omniscient. Why would you assume that the reporter ever said anything that indicated he had this misconception? The scientist probably was careful to specify chemically inert, the reporter may have used the same phrase himself, but by the time it hits the page, it becomes "inert as in non-radioactive". One word makes all the difference.

    But yeah. I guess "stop talking to the press until the press stops having misconceptions about science" is a possible solution. We wouldn't be discussing this research in that case here on /., but hey maybe that's for the best?

  • by hardburn ( 141468 ) <[hardburn] [at] [wumpus-cave.net]> on Thursday September 10, 2009 @02:54PM (#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.

  • Re:Non-Toxic inert? (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Andy Dodd ( 701 ) <atd7.cornell@edu> on Thursday September 10, 2009 @03:00PM (#29381573) Homepage

    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 consumed, it'll likely just pass through, doing very little damage.

  • by The Archon V2.0 ( 782634 ) on Thursday September 10, 2009 @03:00PM (#29381585)

    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!

  • Bad Summary (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Nom du Keyboard ( 633989 ) on Thursday September 10, 2009 @03:28PM (#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.
  • by jeffb (2.718) ( 1189693 ) on Thursday September 10, 2009 @07:19PM (#29384353)

    Oh, nothing could be simpler. You feed them a diet high in soluble fluoride, and lots of intense UV, and they metabolize the stuff into UF6. At the same time, they form into long, columnar biofilms, with flagellae projecting that they use to fan the UF6 into fast circulation. The 235U segregates preferentially to the center, while the 238U goes to the perimeter. All you have to do is separate it out, in lots of stages.

    Alternatively, they could bioluminesce at a precise frequency that excites molecules containing 235U, but not 238U.

    There are lots of other possibilities. It's just a matter of engineering.

  • Re:Radioactivity (Score:3, Interesting)

    by ShadowRangerRIT ( 1301549 ) on Thursday September 10, 2009 @08:05PM (#29384751)
    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.
  • by Johnno74 ( 252399 ) on Friday September 11, 2009 @02:45AM (#29386599)

    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.

The other line moves faster.