Australian researchers have discovered a group of tiny little bugs that will eat up one of the most hazardous cancer-causing substances in a polluted environment and help save many lives.
They have been identified by Megh Mallavarapu of University of South Australia as native soil bacteria that destroy a group of chemicals known as BTEX, linked with cancer, nerve damage and other diseases.
Fuel leaks are one of the most widespread forms of contamination in Australia and elsewhere,” Mallavarapu explained. “Former service station sites, fuel farms, garages, workshops, gasometers, oil spills, which used or processed hydrocarbons or explosives, are literally everywhere that has been closely settled for the past century or so.”
Mallavarapu made these presentations Sunday at the 5th World Congress of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry (SETAC) here.
He explained that in the course of his research into groundwater contaminated by petroleum and oil spills, he identified a number of indigenous soil bacteria that appear highly tolerant to BTEX – the deadly volatile organic compounds benzene, toluene, ethyl-benzene and xylene.
Of these, benzene is a known carcinogen, and the other three can have serious effects on the central nervous system. Besides polluting water and soil, these chemicals can sometimes emerge from the ground as vapours, being inhaled by people living and working nearby.
Bacteria which can tolerate BTEX have been identified in other parts of the world, but these are the first from Australia to show a specific preference for dining on these hazardous wastes.
The microbes devour the carbon in the BTEX molecules, breaking the rest down into simple and harmless constituents of carbon dioxide and water: “You just add the bacteria to BTEX-contaminated water – and they go straight to work.”
However, Mallavarapu and his team have taken the work an important stride further, isolating and sequencing the actual genes in the bacteria which degrade BTEX.
Knowing what genes to look for will help in widening the search for more kinds of soil organisms which have a preference for dining on toxins, or identifying strains which do so even more efficiently.