Cleaning Up with Tech-Assisted Bioremediation

Great technological innovations are all about disruption. Today’s decentralized technology can boost the availability and reliability of known organic and biological remediators, which means that the potential for disruption in the biotech industry is bubbling up like hot primordial soup.

Using hazardous or toxic chemicals to clean up an already compromised ecosystem can do more harm than good. This is because introducing an additional element of toxicity to an already struggling ecosystem can trigger serious unintended consequences. This happened on a major scale in 2010 with the introduction of clean-up chemicals after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. In addition to being ineffective at preventing the spread of oil, the chemical dispersants used to break up the noxious stuff actually caused more damage to the already suffering Gulf ecosystem. Specifically, clean-up chemicals suppressed the growth of an oil-degrading bacteria, slowing the breakdown of oil in the water rather than speeding it up. But what if cleanup efforts were driven by efforts to compliment natural systems rather than compete with them?

Developing technology that supports the natural systems our planet already uses to deal with pollution is a key driver behind breakthroughs in the biotech industry. It’s a major force within the green tech movement, and innovations in this space are helping all achieve a healthier future. Oh yea, and there’s money in it — lots and lots of money.

Bioremediators Do It Better

Bioremediation projects involve human-facilitated extensions of what is already happening in nature. These natural systems add trillions of dollars in economic benefit to environmental cleanup efforts each year, but they cost almost nothing. By relying on these systems, bioremediatiators can achieve the same results as traditional cleanup methods at a lower cost. This makes bioremediation both cheaper and less-disruptive solution for cleaning up contaminated environments, especially when compared to other methods.

Bioremediation is an umbrella term describing a wide array of environmental cleanup approaches that rely on natural systems. Biodegradation, for example, is a bioremediation technology that involves recycling a complex molecule to its mineral constituents. This leads the dangerous starting compound to be broken down into less harmful molecules like CO2, H2O, and NO3. Similarly, biosorption involves using live or dried biomass to break down metallic ions and pollutants from in the environment. This method offers a cleaner alternative to the traditional remediation of industrial effluents and the recovery of pollutants from mines and other sites polluted with metals. While fully-natural solutions are the ideal in this respect, the majority of effective bioremediation is heavily dependent upon technology.

Phytoremediation involves any chemical or physical processes that use plants for degradation or immobilization of contaminants in soil and groundwater. This form of bioremediation uses plants’ abilities to metabolize various molecules in their tissues to clean up soil, air, and water. Likewise, phytosequestration (or phytostabilization) uses roots’ natural capacities to absorb, sequester, precipitate, and immobilize nearly any contaminant in the soil. Roots naturally perform rhizodegratdation, which takes place in the soil or ground water immediately surrounding plant roots. Through this process, plants naturally stimulate the rhizosphere bacteria and enhance biodegradation of soil contaminants. Phytohydraulics is another method that uses deep-rooted plants to contain, sequester, or degrade groundwater contaminants that come into contact with their roots.

Bioremediatiors use naturally-occurring organisms to break down hazardous substances into less toxic or non-toxic substances. This process uses organisms to neutralize or remove contamination from a particular area by metabolizing pollutants. Because these organisms process toxins through their unique metabolic processes, they can be far more effective than simply collecting pollutants and storing them, which is the approach taken by most environmental cleanup methods. Another benefit to bioremediation is that it is a localized solution. Bioremediation can be applied where the contamination has taken place (in situ), which avoids many of the transportation burdens associated with the cleanup of toxic and hazardous materials. This localization effect and other qualities make bioremediation a more environmentally-friendly and cost-effective solution than other cleanup methods. In fact, most bioremediation projects merely require the introduction of nutrients to stimulate the growth of microorganisms that are naturally occurring in an affected ecosystem.

Saving the Planet on the Cheap

Just like traditional environmental cleanup methods, the costs of a bioremediation project depend on circumstantial variables like the size of contaminated area, concentration of contaminants, conditions such as temperature and soil density, and whether the project is located in a remote area. Based upon these and other relevant factors, a bioremediation process could take anywhere from a few months to several years. However, one thing remains true: bioremediation among the cheapest largescale environmental clean-up methods at our disposal today.

Bioremediation offers flexible, localized environmental solutions that cost very little because the entire approach uses the microorganisms already present in our natural systems to achieve environmental goals. Certain microbes rely on oil, solvents, and pesticides as a source of food and energy. Once microbes consume contaminants, microbes convert them into small amounts of water and harmless gases. Conditions can be manipulated by amending the environment in a manner that creates the right combination of elements for microbes to flourish successfully, and bioremediators can be removed or even reclaimed once they have effectively removed toxins from the environment. For example, phytoextraction (or phytoaccumulation) occurs when plants hyperaccumulate contaminants through their roots and store them in the stem or leaf tissues. With this process, the contaminants are not degraded, but rather removed from the environment when the plants are harvested. This process is very useful for removing metals, which can be recovered for reuse by incinerating the plants in a process called phytomining.

Bioremediators perform environmental services better than we do because it involves nothing more than supporting an organism in an ecosystem doing what it does best. Bioremediation projects are more effective and efficient — all around better — than traditional clean-up methods, but in case it is easier to put a number on it, the vast biodiversity that makes all this possible provides services worth around $125 trillion a year.

Bioremediation Meets Decentralized Technology

Bioremediation technologies have harnessed the natural abilities of plants, microbes, and their ecosystems to make safe environmental cleanup possible. Tech innovators have been able to build on the work of scientists in the field to generate several well-modeled approaches to tech-assisted bioremediation.

Decentralized technologies are uniquely poised to improve the quality of bioremediation technologies. For example, blockchain technology can be used to create an automated and decentralized ledger to record, track, and validate bioremediatory information nearly instantaneously and cutting back on research and development investments substantially over time. Likewise, local communities can leverage the proliferation of sensor devices on the Internet of Things to capture and share environmental data that supports bioremediation projects. Using decentralized computing technologies, we can create that permanent, reliable, and automatically-updated systems that support bioremediation activities, facilitate the development of new discoveries, and store big data for the benefit of future users. These functions support the needs of existing tech-assisted bioremediation projects while also improving the success of similar endeavors in the future.

Tech-Assisted Bioremediation in Practice

Bioremediation technology is quickly moving from the lab to the real world. Shortly before the 2012 London Olympics, drew millions of tourists to the city, bioremediation helped transform a long-polluted area of East London. Using different green techniques, including the support of a naturally occurring microorganism called archaea, officials were able to clean up areas polluted from industry and create new spaces for wildlife habitat. This approach was similar to the extensive bioremediation efforts used to combat the devasting effects of the Exxon Valdez and Deepwater Horizon oil spills. In both cases, microorganisms were used to consume petroleum hydrocarbons and reduce the environmental impact of the spills.

If the idea of a bacterium that eats heavy metals or an archaea that consumes crude oil molecules seems too abstract for reality, prepare for things to get even weirder. Bioremediation, particularly when combined with the tracking and ledger technology available on the blockchain, may be able to help the world with its litter problem — you know, the one that launched that giant garbage island that floats around the Pacific these days.

Magic Mushrooms for Garbage Island

Different types of fungi are best suited to breaking down different types of wastes. For example, white-rot fungi has shown potential in decomposing pharmaceutical and personal care products, which contain endocrine disrupting chemical that have caused havoc in the aquatic ecosystems receiving contaminated wastewater. Extremophilic-fungi — ones that grow in extreme environments and possess a degree of tolerance to harsh conditions — are effective bioremediators for waste products from industries such as textiles manufacture, leather processing, and animal feed preparation. And to the great relief of anyone concerned about the proliferation of plastic wastes across our lands and oceans, scientists recently discovered that fungi can be used to break down plastic.

A mushroom species recently discovered in the Ecuadorian rainforest, pestalotiopsis microspora, has been observed eating polyurethane, a common type of plastic. Polyurethane plastic pollution has become ubiquitous, meaning that it’s literally everywhere. But for the most part, it ends up in the ocean — causing both general grossness and unspeakable devastation to marine ecosystems. Because of its very strong bonds, polyurethane is considered nonbiodegradable; that is, without the help of some pretty magical mushrooms.

While actually growing mushrooms on garbage island sounds more like a super challenging Minecraft project than an effective bioremediation method, leveraging the natural power of these incredible organisms could help us make leaps and bounds forward in decomposing plastic. This is especially true for plastics stuck down at the bottom of landfills, since the fungi can survive in anaerobic environments. Indeed, anyone who knows the species well knows that fungi are the odd-ball in the vast kingdom of life our planet supports, but their bioremediation potential is immense — and largely untapped.

Solving thus-unsolvable environmental problems like plastic pollution and radioactive waste by leveraging the natural environmental cleanup abilities of fungal metabolism is an exciting prospect, but nature-based technologies are characterized by their untapped power. Natural systems hold many of the secrets to helping us solve some of our most pressing environmental challenges, but Mother Nature is characteristically coy. Support from the biotech community could make leaps and bounds towards capturing some of the incredible benefits offered by natural bioremediators by simply coaxing out some of the biotech trade secrets hidden away in the cells of bacteria and fungi — and then making trillions of dollars off of it.

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