A new species of bacteria from the class betaproteobacteria has been discovered in an abandoned radioactive site in Colorado. The organism is deemed to be remarkable because of its ability to breathe in uranium and to thrive in harsh radioactive environments. The findings are described in a paper entitled “Spatial Distribution of an Uranium-Respiring Betaproteobacterium at the Rifle, CO Field Research Site”, published in PLOSONE.
Breathing uranium in ore processing sites
Life has the knack at thriving on our planet just about anywhere. Species of living organisms have even been endowed with abilities that allow them to go about their activities smoothly in remote and harsh environments. Yet another organism falling into this category has been discovered by scientists: a type of bacteria belonging to the betaproteobacteria group that “breathes in” uranium, flourishing in abandoned uranium ore processing plants.
The new species was spotted in the soil located at an old uranium ore mill in Colorado which used to be a site for the production of nuclear weapons; it has remained radioactive since then. In spite of the potential hazards that exist on a radioactive area, the bacteria seem to be doing just fine, and even propagating themselves.
How did the bacteria came to be?
The researchers are unsure as to how the uranium-consuming bacteria came to thrive from radioactive substances. How would the bacteria have grown to become able to detoxify uranium and feed on it? Perhaps, they have so developed by a process similar to how bacteria grow resistant to antibiotics.
Using the bacteria to clean areas of radioactive contamination
The bacteria snatch the spare electron of the uranium in a chemical process known as “reduction”. If the resulting uranium is considered to be safe for use by humans, the bacteria could be used to clear up pollution caused by uranium. However, the impact of the organisms themselves on the environment has not been evaluated yet; more research needs to be done. Otherwise, the scientists are optimistic that the bacteria can be used to clean contaminated water and make it safe to drink again.
“After the newly discovered bacteria interact with uranium compounds in water, the uranium becomes immobile,” said Lee Kerkhof, a professor of marine and coastal science in the School of Environmental and Biological Sciences, in a statement.
“It is no longer dissolved in the groundwater and, therefore, can’t contaminate drinking water brought to the surface.”
The use of the bacteria might even be extended to further areas with water contamination problems, according to Kerkhof.
“There is depleted uranium in a lot of armor-piercing munitions,” he said, “so places like the Middle East that are experiencing war could be exposed to high levels of uranium in the groundwater.”