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Study uncovers bacteria's worst enemy

University of California scientists working at Los Alamos National Laboratory have found that the successful use of bacteria to remediate environmental contamination from nuclear waste and processing activities may depend more upon how resistant the bacteria are to chemicals than to how tolerant they are to radioactivity. The results of a recent Laboratory study may help make bacterial bioremediation a more widespread method for cleaning up sites contaminated with actinides and other radionuclides.

In research published in the journal Environmental Microbiology, Laboratory chemist Mary Neu and her colleagues describe their study of different naturally occurring bacteria used to treat actinide contamination. Actinides are the elements above atomic number 89 and are usually radioactive. The study's results indicate that actinide toxicity is primarily chemical, rather than radiological, and so a bacteria's resistance to radiation does not necessarily ensure a tolerance for radionuclides. In fact, the bacteria's worst enemy in a nuclear waste site may not be the radioactive elements, but rather, the other toxic metals that might also be found at the site.

The study also shows that contrary to the conventional wisdom, when it comes to these environmental bacteria, plutonium is less toxic than uranium and, in general, actinides are less toxic than other types of metals. This suggests that actinide toxicity will not impede bioremediation using naturally occurring bacteria.

"This study" said Neu, "is exciting because even though we've known for years that bacterial bioremediation can be a preferred method for cleaning up actinide contamination, we've never really known whether or not radioactivity or chemical toxicity will stifle the process. Our study found that actinides are chemically toxic to bacteria only at high levels far, far above concentrations at contaminated sites, and that common toxic metals, such as cadmium, nickel, and chromium, are mo
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Source:DOE/Los Alamos National Laboratory


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