What Is Bioremediation?

What if nature itself could help us fix pollution? Could bacteria, plants and seaweed fix chemical spills and pollution?

Table of Contents

What is bioremediation?

When you think about pollution, what comes to your mind? Is it a large garbage dump, full of plastic waste? Is it a pipe from a factory leading into a river, spewing bright green liquid? In all of these cases, pollution is easy to see, and somewhat easy to deal with. We can collect the plastic, or stop the pipe and filter the water. What do we do when pollution is invisible? Sometimes even seeing it doesn’t make it easier to clean up, like in a massive oil spill. What can we do when pollution is invisible, or when we don’t have effective ways to clean it up?

Plastic pollution on a beach
Plastic pollution on a beach, Credit; flickr.com/Robert Vicol

In these cases, bioremediation can be an excellent solution. The word “remediation” means to fix or mend. With pollution, it means restoring an ecosystem to its unpolluted, healthy state. “Bio” means living! Bioremediation uses living organisms like microbes or plants to fix pollution. Microbes can include bacteria or fungi. These can be very useful when pollution is hard to visualize, or when cleaning it up traditionally is very expensive, or entirely impossible.

Bioremediation through plants

Plant bioremediation is sometimes known as phytoremediation . Plants can absorb pollutants like heavy metals through their roots. Root networks can cover very large areas. Imagine a net that is cast very wide, and gradually collects things as it’s pulled in. Once the net is done collecting, everything can be bundled up and thrown away. This is how plants’ root networks can absorb pollutants. Plant bioremediation doesn’t just involve terrestrial plants. Wetland plants and algae can aid in cleaning up swamps and marine systems.

Phytoremediation
Phytoremediation at a mining site in Portugal, Credit; flickr.com/Daniela

Some pollutants can be really toxic. Lead, arsenic, and mercury might cause us significant damage, but certain plants seem to handle them a lot better! Researchers are constantly on the hunt for plants that are able to survive in very toxic environments, and clean them up in the process of growing! One type of fern can accumulate levels of arsenic that most animals couldn’t survive. Genetic engineering of these special plants might even make them more hardy. Sometimes, different varieties of plants are grown together. The interactions between these different species of plants can help bioremediation go even faster.

 

Phytoremediation is most useful when pollutants are present in very low amounts throughout an ecosystem. It can be nearly impossible to collect all the pollutants. Plants cast their nets wide and do the collection for us.

 

Some plants convert toxic compounds into harmless forms. It’s important to consider that many plants cannot do this, or that compounds like arsenic may never be entirely harmless. In these cases, it’s important to still collect plants after they are done growing and dispose of the plant material carefully and safely. If this isn’t done, the plants might end up further polluting the area.

Bioremediation Through Microbes

Microbe bioremediation is definitely a very exciting field! Microbes are present in all corners of the world and perform so many different functions that it’s hard to imagine anything that a microbe couldn’t do!

 

Unlike plant bioremediation, microbes cannot accumulate toxins. They’re too small to hold any useful amount of pollutants, and they’re almost impossible to collect. Microbes are usually involved in triggering biodegradation. When you leave most materials alone for long enough, they gradually break down. Plastics and other artificial compounds don’t do so very easily. The sun and water isn’t enough to break down plastics. But researchers have identified types of microbes that can produce special chemicals which digest plastic! In this manner, plastic and other pollutants can be broken down by microbe bioremediation.

Bioremediation
Bioremediation in action, Credit; depositphotos.com/VectorMine

In some cases, the microbes that we need to fix pollution might already live in an ecosystem. Unfortunately, their numbers might be too small to effectively cause any change. In this case, we can add nutrients to get them growing! Eventually, their numbers will grow enough to cause the changes we want to see.

 

Sometimes, the microbes that we need to fix pollution might not be present within an ecosystem at all. They need to first be bred to create sufficient numbers. After enough have grown, they can be added to the ecosystem to aid in fixing pollution. While it’s hard to imagine a situation worse than severe pollution, it’s important to consider that these microbes are still non-native to the ecosystems in which they are placed. They need to be monitored carefully to ensure that these new additions don’t cause any problems, or disturb the balance of the ecosystem.

 

Not only can these fantastic little friends fix pollution, but some of them can even create a show while doing it! Some microbes produce light as they grow. We can watch them as they grow in number, become brighter and brighter, and set to work on fixing pollution.

Bioluminescence
Bioluminescence observed at a beach, Credit:Wikimedia/Mike

Researchers have even identified microbes that break down fossil fuels. These can be incredibly useful to clean up oil spills, which are some of the most challenging pollution problems we face.

 

From the air we breathe to the water we drink, the world we live in is filled with pollution problems. From the highest river to the deepest ocean, there is no part of the world that doesn’t have some human signature. Microplastics have been found in every corner of the world. When environmental pollution is so common, so widespread, and so damaging, bioremediation can be a valuable tool in a toolbox dedicated to changing the world for the better.

Flesch Kincaid Grade Level: 56.2

 

Flesch Kincaid Reading Ease: 8.7

Glossary

Phytoremediation: Bioremediaton through plants

 

Microbes: Tiny organisms that are invisible to the naked eye

Danh, L. T., Truong, P., Mammucari, R., & Foster, N. (2014). A Critical Review of the Arsenic Uptake Mechanisms and Phytoremediation Potential of Pteris vittata. International Journal of Phytoremediation, 16(5), 429–453. https://doi.org/10.1080/15226514.2013.798613

 

Omokhagbor Adams, G., Tawari Fufeyin, P., Eruke Okoro, S., & Ehinomen, I. (2020). Bioremediation, Biostimulation and Bioaugmention: A Review. International Journal of Environmental Bioremediation & Biodegradation, 3(1), 28–39. https://doi.org/10.12691/ijebb-3-1-5

 

Ripp, S., Nivens, D. E., Ahn, Y., Werner, C., Jarrell, J., Easter, J. P., Cox, C. D., Burlage, R. S., & Sayler, G. S. (2000). Controlled Field Release of a Bioluminescent Genetically Engineered Microorganism for Bioremediation Process Monitoring and Control. Environmental Science & Technology, 34(5), 846–853. https://doi.org/10.1021/es9908319

 

Ron, E. Z., & Rosenberg, E. (2014). Enhanced bioremediation of oil spills in the sea. Current Opinion in Biotechnology, 27, 191–194. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.copbio.2014.02.004

 

Srivastava, J., Naraian, R., Kalra, S. J. S., & Chandra, H. (2014). Advances in microbial bioremediation and the factors influencing the process. International Journal of Environmental Science and Technology, 11(6), 1787–1800. https://doi.org/10.1007/s13762-013-0412-z

Contributors

  • Yamini Srikanth
    : Author
    Yamini's (he/they) interests lie in environmental education, science communication and trying to build a better world. When not languishing in front of his laptop, they can be found outside, poking at any insect, bird or plant. They love making science accessible, especially to those who aren't encouraged to pursue it. Yamini hopes that the young women who read Smore love learning from their articles and get just a little bit more excited about science!

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