Some microbes may be able to clean up nuclear waste and at the same time generate electricity. Michigan State University (MSU) researchers have recently discovered how a bacterium called Geobacter can do all that.
“Geobacter bacteria are tiny micro-organisms that can play a major role in cleaning up polluted sites around the world,” said Gemma Reguera, who is an MSU AgBioResearch scientist. “Uranium contamination can be produced at any step in the production of nuclear fuel, and this process safely prevents its mobility and the hazard for exposure.”
The Geobacter‘s uranium-immobilizing properties have already been known for a while, but now the researchers discovered that their conductive nanowire-like pili do the most important task.
“Our findings clearly identify nanowires as being the primary catalyst for uranium reduction,” says Reguera. “They are essentially performing nature’s version of electroplating with uranium, effectively immobilizing the radioactive material and preventing it from leaching into groundwater.”
The Geobacter is actually helped by its nanowires to survive in toxic environments such as those rich in radiations. The researchers discovered that the bacteria like acetate, and they used it to stimulate the growth of a bacterial community which removed uranium from the soil.
Proceeding to even more advanced technologies, Reguera and her team modified the genes of a Geobacter strain to enhance the nanowire production, increasing its abilities to immobilize uranium proportionally to the number of nanowires while at the same time improving its viability as a catalytic cell.
In times like these, it’s important knowing that a simple bacterium like Geobacter can help reducing the influence of nuclear waste on the environment and maybe help in case of nuclear disasters like that from Fukushima.