Use of Biotechnology for Cleaning Up Our Environment
Solid wastes account for an increasing proportion of the waste generated by urban societies. While a part of this volume consists of glass, plastics, and other non-biodegradable material, a considerable proportion of this is made of decomposable solid organic material, like food wastes from large poultry and pig farms. In large non-urbanized communities, a common method for disposing off such biodegradable waste is the low-cost Anaerobic Landfill Technology. In this process, the solid wastes are deposited in low- lying, low value sites.
Composting is an anaerobic microbially driven process that converts organic wastes into stable sanitary humus like material. This material can then be safely returned to the natural environment. This method is actually a low moisture, solid substrate fermentation process.
Various products (chemicals) generated by the modem technologies are posing a great threat to the natural breakdown processes and the natural mechanisms of maintaining ecological balance. Many of these pollutants are complex in nature, and are hence difficult to break down.
The application of biotechnology has helped in the environmental management of such hazardous contaminants by bioremediation. This process is also referred to as bio-restoration or bio-treatment. Bioremediation involves the use of naturally existing microorganisms to speed up the breaking down of biological substances and degradation of various materials.
Biosensors are biophysical devices that can detect and measure the quantities of specific substances in a variety of environments. Biosensors include enzymes, antibodies and even microorganisms, and these can be used for clinical, immunological, genetic and other research purposes.
The biosensor probes are used to detect and monitor pollutants in the environment.
The basic principle of bioremediation is the breaking down of organic contaminants into simple organic compounds like carbon dioxide, water, salts and other harmless products.
Oil Eating Bugs:
Accidental oil spills pose a great threat to ocean environments. Such spills have a direct impact on marine organisms. To counter this problem, scientists have now developed living organisms to clean up the oil spills. The most common oil-eating microorganisms are bacteria and fungi.
More than hundred thousand (one lakh) different chemical compounds are produced in the world every year. While some of these chemicals are biodegradable, others like chlorinated compounds are resistant to microbial degradation.
To tackle these Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCBs), scientists have now isolated a number of PCB-degrading bacterial (Pseudomonas pseudoalkali) genes KF 707.
Other genetically engineered bacteria are also degrading different ranges of chlorinated compounds. For instance, an anaerobic bacterial strain Desulfitlobacterium sp. Y51 dechlorinates PCE (Poly chloroethylene) to cw-12-dichloroethylene (cDCE), at concentrations ranging from 01 – 160 ppm.
Among the oldest industries in the world, mining is the source of alarming levels of environmental pollution. Modem biotechnology is now being used to improve the environment surrounding mining areas through various microorganisms. For instance, a bacterium Thiobacillus ferooxidans has been used to back out copper from mine tailings. This has also helped in improving recovery. Biotechnology also offers the means of improving the efficiency of bio mining, by developing bacterial strains that can withstand high temporaries. This helps these bacteria survive the bio-processing which generates a lot of heat.
The discharge of noxious toxic and odorous gases is a serious environmental problem. Reduced sulphur compounds (thiosulphate, hydrogen sulphide) are generated from a variety of industrial processes in photographic and pulp industries, oil refining and purification of natural gases. These compounds are the by-products of anaerobic digestion of animal wastes with a high organic content. Most inorganic reduced sulphur compounds can be utilised either aerobically or anaerobically.
Most commercially used chemical pesticides and fertilisers have proved hazardous beyond a certain threshold level. These chemicals, when degraded by microorganisms or ultraviolet light, release pollutants in the environment. Biotechnological tools can help in such situations.
With the help of modem biotechnology, naturally occurring biocatalysts can be used to detoxify harmful chemicals being released into the environment. Such biocatalysts have helped get rid of carcinogenic compounds like methylene chloride from industrial wastes.
These special bacteria are exposed to the waste in a bioreactor, wherein the bacteria consume the noxious chemical and convert it to water, carbon dioxide and salts, thus completely destroying the chemical compound.
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