September 15, 2010

Superbugs that clean up environment

A contaminated site, of either terrestrial or aquatic ecosystems, that is polluted with toxic chemicals is deadly for the environment. The textile, leather, fertilizer and other industries are continuously releasing toxic pollut into our land and rivers, disturbing the normal balance of both the ecosystems which is alarming for a clean and healthy environment.
Although there are various ways to clean up the environment such as recycling the wastes, incineration or disposing the wastes and pollutants into landfill sites, the best and most eco-friendly way to clean up the pollutants is using the microorganisms, the process known as bioremediation. Genetically engineered microbes (GEMs) or the so called superbugs could be a very promising option to perform this job.
Don’t confuse this superbug with those resistant bacteria which are also called superbugs and are capable of resisting almost any antibiotics present to date and thus a major concern now in health sector. I will limit today’s discussion to the genetically engineered microbes with their promise for a better, cleaner and a greener environment.

Nature performs its own way of cleaning the environment by biodegradation of the toxic chemicals by its inhabitant microorganisms to maintain a perfect balance. This process is known as intrinsic bioremediation or biorestoration. But in this modern and industrialized society, the rate of pollution, probably, has gone far beyond what the natural biodegradation can deal with. Moreover, the generation of recalcitrant molecules, chemicals which are hard to degrade, and xenobiotics, unnatural chemical substances in the environment, has made it quite difficult for the natural microorganisms to cope with those pollutants. However, microorganisms also evolve to gain the capability of degrading certain chemicals. Here comes the opportunity for the biotechnologists to apply a simple trick and what they do is combine several characteristics, capable of degrading different chemicals, from different bacteria into a single one simply by transferring the plasmids responsible for those different characteristics making the new bacterium a superbug. Plasmids are extra chromosomal genetic elements of bacteria containing certain genetic traits that can hop to other bacteria and gain the capability of reproducing independently into the new ones and share the traits with them.
The very first superbug was created to degrade oil in 1970s when Chakrabarty and co-workers reported the development of a new strain of bacterium by transfer of plasmids and named it superbug which could utilize a number of toxic organic chemicals like octane, hexane, xylene, toluene, camphor and naphthalene. In 1980, United States granted the patent to this superbug making it the first genetically engineered microorganism to be patented. This superbug was then used for cleaning an oil spill in Texas in 1990. Recent research shows that deep sea microbes are evolving in response to the deepwater horizon disaster helping to clean up the contaminated water in the Gulf of Mexico, according to a study published in August 2010 in Science Express. Terry Hazen of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California and his colleagues in the study found increases in several bacteria varieties within the oil’s reach. The 1989 Exxon Valdez spill provided similar clues. The task for genetic engineers, therefore, is to take the unique characteristics from the evolving microbes and construct strains of so called superbugs, with broad spectrum of catabolic potential ideal for bioremediation of polluted environment in both aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems.Therefore, bioremediation protocols can be generated for treatment of industrial effluents from various industries like textile, leather, fertilizer and pharmaceuticals and many more.From

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