Arsenic-Eating Bacteria May Not Redefine Life, But Could They Be Useful in Oil Spill Cleanup?

Today's report of Arsenic-eating bacteria published in Science could have some unanticipated benefits: clean up and bioremediation after an oil spill. I may be off base, but here's my reasoning. Caveat: these newly discovered bacteria may not be useful in reducing arsenic levels after an oil spill if they are "fastidious" or too finicky to adapt to a marine environment. But then again, bacteria seem to always surprise us.

NASA Image Gulf Oil Spill
On May 24, 2010, the Advanced Spaceborne Thermal Emission and Reflection Radiometer (ASTER) on NASA's Terra satellite captured this false-color, high-resolution view of the very tip of the Mississippi River Delta. Ribbons and patches of oil that have leaked from the Deepwater Horizon well offshore are silver against the light blue color of the adjacent water. Vegetation is red.

Our oceans are generally resilient in the wake of contamination such as industrial waste, in part due to the highly effective filtration by deep sediments that can "bury" the toxins. Of course, there are limits. The BP Oil Spill is an alarming example. What happens when the ocean's filtration system, a delicate balance of sediments working together, are shut down?

Not surprisingly, wastewater generated from oil production can be quite toxic. An unappealing cocktail of toxins including heavy metals, this water contains high levels of mercury, lead, cadmium and arsenic. Of particular concern is arsenic: such waste can contain up to one hundred thousand times the safe limit in drinking water set by the Environmental Protection Agency. About two liquid ounces of contaminated wastewater consumed by a 150 pound person in one day corresponds to a lethal dose.

Fortunately, oil rig wastewater is not a beverage of choice and sediment filtration in our oceans can effectively "eliminate" the waste or least minimize any leaching.

British scientists recently conducted a study of the effect of crude oil on how ocean sediments can filter out toxic chemicals such as arsenic. They found that arsenic absorption within sediments is significantly reduced when exposed to oil. With the filtration system essentially shut down, arsenic can then be dispersed freely affecting the entire food chain, including us.

Potential dangers of arsenic-contaminated water are reminiscent of Bangladesh, with widespread reports of skin lesions and a higher incidence of cancer. Drinking water in Bangladesh is widely recognized as an environmental and public health nightmare, having poisoned up to 77 million residents, resulting from the widespread use of groundwater. Hand-pumped wells can access water containing extremely high levels of arsenic leached from rocks, not to mention contamination from mining and industrial production plants. Indeed, the World Health Organization has referred to this as "the largest mass poisoning of a population in history".

Lessons learned from Bangladesh should guide us in the event that arsenic-laced waters begin washing ashore in the Gulf. A number of technologies were specifically developed for arsenic removal.

I sincerely hope that relying on such lessons will be unnecessary, and that the study by these British scientists will simply give us one more reason to manage oil spills effectively using the best technologies and minds that this country has to offer.

A version of this article was published originally in OpEdNews.

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Perhaps the bacteria could be adapted to clean the As laced ground water in Bangladesh, which is a major problem in that overpopulated poor country.

By Gary Allan (not verified) on 02 Dec 2010 #permalink

Arsenic finds use in cells as sbstitute for Phosphorus as has same oxidation states as Phosphorus and forms similar acid (arsenic acid a triprotic acid with quite similar structure to Phosphoric A.). Even if it isnt being used in DNA phosphate backbone it is probably whizzing around as AMA,ADA,ATA,G6A....WOWOWOWOWOWOWOWOWOW !!!

By THOMAS DREAGER (not verified) on 02 Dec 2010 #permalink

Oh sure! Let's dump lots of really tough bacteria chock full of arsenic in the Gulf. What could go wrong? Ayayay.

If arsenic-eating bacteria can be useful in oil spill clean-up, then this would be a perfect idea. This only means they can also be used in coastal cleanup. Wherein, more factories are having problem in disposing their waste. But before it will be applied, numbers of observations and dry runs should be observed, I suggest.

These dailbiotech bacteria are very effectively available of cleanup of Mexico gulf oil spill. More quickly and radically restore to marine pollution of Mexico gulf. The reason is that the toxic substances, the ability to take advantage of the spectacular and to withstand harsh environments and is adaptable, high

Super Bacteria of NASA and Korea

NASA of United States announcement is wonderful. Live bacteria eat only arsenic in the discovery of the discovery of a new microbial, and poor universe which the survival of microorganisms in the environment likely to prove. Once again, as long as microbial infinite possibilities will confirm. In person, dailbiotech ( corp. of the Chuncheon, life offers 10 years ago these poisons already eating live microorganisms to study the domestic pollution of Korea, Sweden and Cyprus between the fields of prosper, etc, and perhaps a more powerful from soil microorganisms and prove that features the domestic and the United States, Europe, and filed a patent registration. As an example that Korea patent 588305, United States Patent US7745199B1, European patent register EP1745124A1, Sweden beach of tar acid for verification of material have been released to the public. That ingredients, TPH, PAH, BTEX, ethylbenzene, toluene, xylene, EOX , POX, halogenated hydrocarbons, chloro-benzene, chloro-phenol, PCBs, cyanide, arsenic, lead, cadmium, mercury, sulfur, pH 1.2 and, this is well explode states several bacteria are found by removing the compassionate also some industrialization. Other dioxin and defoliant offers the main microbial decomposition, PCBs toxic substances of decomposition-bacteria remove sympathy led to on-site demonstration prepare even industrialization and many other special microorganisms for materials in the above patents to the public. These domestic indigenous knowledge in a global environment problems, such as Sweden, the efforts for positive verification in the United States, such as the Environment Agency received a review, but the micro-level venture industry is in progress, more than NASA exceptional discoveries and NASA and a huge organization such as the press did not receive the focus is. Once again in the domestic indigenous knowledge and global blue ocean market preemption for national support and causing a national-interest

CEO/CTO/PhD Sunggie Lee
Dailbiotech corp.
T: 82-33-258-6875
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Unfortunately, it appears that while the bacteria survive while using arsenic instead of phosphorus, they still prefer to phosphorus. So unless the arsenic-polluted waters are also very poor in phosphorus, we are not really getting anywhere.

By Catherine Adamson (not verified) on 03 Dec 2010 #permalink

Thank you for your comment. You raise a valid point; the main caveat would be how finicky the bacteria are; perhaps this is worth a research project using ocean water?

I think there is a major misunderstanding here. Bacteria that use Arsenic by creating organic compounds with Arsenic make the Arsenic more poisonous, more dangerous. Only mineralization to insoluble forms reduces the danger. Bacteria do not make the Arsenic go away--they simply convert it into other forms. The organic compounds they producewith Arsenic are more dangerous, not less.

Not at all. I agree that such bacteria would not make arsenic "go away" - instead they could incorporate it via their metabolism (if arsenic really is incorporated into their DNA - a controversial proposal), allowing the ocean's sediments to concentrate and filter the microbes. This "bioremediation" approach could be much less harmful to the environment than freely soluble arsenic that could distribute widely throughout the oceans and throughout the food chain. This proposal, of course, is based upon the caveat that they may or may not be adaptable for such use.

It would be great if this arsenic eating bacteria could help clean up oil spills. Although it is a little concerning that Arsenic itself is very toxic so it would have to be tightly controlled.

Arsenic-Eating Bacteria May Not Redefine Life, But Could They Be Useful in Oil Spill Cleanup? – Dean's Corner Pretty nice post. I just stumbled upon your blog and wished to say that I have really enjoyed surfing around your blog posts. In any case I will be subscribing to your rss feed and I hope you write again very soon!