In the early 1980’s, little was known about how toxic wastes interact with the hydrosphere. This lack of knowledge was crippling efforts to remediate environmental contamination under the new Superfund legislation—the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act. Faced with this problem, Congress directed the USGS to conduct a program to provide this critically needed information. By means of this program, known as the Toxic Substances Hydrology Program, the most important categories of wastes were systematically investigated at sites throughout the United States. One of the principal findings of this program was that microorganisms in shallow aquifers affect the fate and transport of virtually all kinds of toxic substances.

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Photo: TobiahHorton

Bioremediation can be defined as any process that uses microorganisms, fungi, green plants or their enzymes to return the natural environment altered by contaminants to its original condition. Bioremediation may be employed to attack specific soil contaminants, such as degradation of chlorinated hydrocarbons by bacteria. Naturally occurring bioremediation and phytoremediation have been used for centuries.

For example, desalination of agricultural land by phytoextraction has a long tradition. Bioremediation technology using microorganisms was reportedly invented by George M. Robinson. He was the assistant county petroleum engineer for Santa Maria, California. During the 1960’s, he spent his spare time experimenting with dirty jars and various mixes of microbes. These technologies can be generally classified as in situ or ex situ. In situ bioremediation involves treating the contaminated material at the site while ex situ involves the removal of the contaminated material to be treated elsewhere.

Some examples of bioremediation technologies are bioventing, landfarming, bioreactor, composting, bioaugmentation, rhizofiltration, and biostimulation. Not all contaminants, however, are easily treated by bioremediation using microorganisms. For example, heavy metals such as cadmium and lead are not readily absorbed or captured by organisms. The assimilation of metals such as mercury into the food chain may worsen matters.

Phytoremediation is useful in these circumstances, because natural plants or transgenic plants are able to bioaccumulate these toxins in their above-ground parts, which are then harvested for removal. The heavy metals in the harvested biomass may be further concentrated by incineration or even recycled for industrial use. The elimination of a wide range of pollutants and wastes from the environment requires increasing our understanding of the relative importance of different pathways and regulatory networks to carbon flux in particular environments and for particular compounds.

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Photo: screenedin

Although bioremediation holds great promise for dealing with intractable environmental problems, it is important to recognize that much of this promise has yet to be realized. Specifically, much needs to be learned about how microorganisms interact with different hydrologic environments. As this under-standing increases, the efficiency and applicability of bioremediation will grow rapidly. Because of its unique interdisciplinary expertise in microbiology, hydrogeology, and geochemistry, the USGS will continue to be at the forefront of this exciting and rapidly evolving technology.
Sources: http://water.usgs.gov, http://en.wikipedia.org

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