UT-ORNL Test Pollution-Eating Microbes (230)

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Genetically engineered microorganisms to clean up hazardous waste were used outdoors for the first time Wednesday in a University of Tennessee-Oak Ridge National Laboratory experiment.

Dr. Gary Sayler, UT-Knoxville microbiologist and project co-director, said field tests of the microbes began at an ORNL hazardous waste test-site contaminated with napthalene, a common industrial solvent.

Sayler said using microbes to remove pollution from soil will be much less expensive than the present method of burning the contaminated soil.

“These microbes pose no threat to humans or the environment, and they mark an important stage in development of bio-engineered pollution controls that can make the environment a cleaner, safer place,” said Sayler, who heads UT’s Center for Environmental Biotechnology.

The microbes are common bacteria from chemically contaminated soil in New York. They have been genetically engineered to produce light as they eat hazardous waste and break it down into harmless by-products, Sayler said.

Though environmentally safe, the bacteria will be contained in steel-lined containers in the soil and monitored to prevent them from leaking from the experiment site, Sayler said.

Robert Burlage, an ORNL microbiologist and project co-director, said biological cleanup of pollution will protect the environment and save industry and taxpayer money.

“These contaminants can be rendered harmless through incineration, but the cost of excavating and burning soil can be prohibitively expensive,” he said.

The experiment is funded by the U.S. Department of Energy.

Contact: Dr. Gary Sayler (423-974-8080)