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Could microbes solve Russia's chemical weapons conundrum?

One of nature's most versatile microorganisms ?a bacterium called Pseudomonas putida ?could help mop up the toxic by-products caused by the destruction of the chemical weapon mustard, write Russian researchers in Journal of Chemical Technology and Biotechnology (http://www.interscience.wiley.com/jctb) this month.

At 40,000 tonnes, Russia houses the world's largest stockpile of chemical warfare agents (CWAs). The country faces a race against time to dispose of the stockpile by 2007, in accordance with the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC). This disposal must be achieved in an ecologically-sound manner.

Dr. Inna Ermakova and colleagues from the GK Skryabin Institute of Biochemistry and Physiology of Microorganisms at the Russian Academy of Sciences in Puschino examined the possibility of using P putida to transform the toxic by-products contained in reaction masses (RMs) that arise when mustard is destroyed by chemical detoxification (a procedure developed in response to the CWC).

Currently, incineration or a process called bitumenisation are employed to deal with RMs, how-ever both methods are highly expensive and pose environmental risks.

Mustard is a blistering agent that was first used in World War I. Found in both liquid and aerosol form (mustard gas), it can cause severe burns to the skin, and severe damage to the respiratory system and internal organs if ingested or inhaled. It accounts for around 2 percent of Russia's CWA stockpile.

Around 60 percent of the mustard RM consists of derivatives of a toxic compound called 1,4-perhydrothiazine (PHT).

Ermakova's research team grew P putida in cultures containing mustard RM. They then moni-tored the levels of PHT derivatives in the cultures until the bacteria stopped growing, using monoethanolamine (MEA) and ethylene glycol (EG) ?both residual components of the initial de-toxification process that are present in the RM ?for growth.

The results showed that the con
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Source:John Wiley & Sons, Inc.


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