Fields uses this system-based approach to study the microbial communities living at sites contaminated by toxic heavy metals, such as uranium and chromium, may help stop the spread of those contaminants.
Some ions of those heavy metals are soluble in water, allowing them to seep into groundwater and spread beyond the contaminated site.
But Fields explained that some of the microbes he studies can, just by going through their natural life processes, lend a few extra electrons to the metals, preventing them from dissolving in water. The metals are then deposited in solid form at the site rather than spreading.
"We're not getting rid of it, but we are treating and containing it so that it doesn't make people sick," Fields said.
Right now, a number of complications make this process hard to understand in real world terms, Fields said. Chief among those complications is the fact that microbes behave differently in biofilms the complex, multi-species communities they tend to form in the real world than they do when isolated. This means that any remediation solution involving microbes would have to be studied carefully and tailored to suit a specific site.
But Fields believes that, despite the complexity, microbial solutions will be cheaper and more efficient than traditional methods for remediating sites, which include chemically treating and physically removing the contaminated soil.
Fields hopes that this research will go a long ways toward showing people that microbes have much to offer.
"This is a microbial world," Fields said. "They're the most evolved creatures on the planet, and we have a lot to learn about them."
|Contact: Matthew Fields|
Montana State University