Bacteria Tapped for Eco-Friendly Industrial Cleanup


Water plays a crucial role in industry. It helps generate electricity, mine for precious minerals and support numerous other functions that fuel the economy and provide society with the products and services essential to everyday life.

During industrial use, however, water is sometimes contaminated by one of over 100,000 chemicals used commercially. If these chemicals are untreated, they can pollute the environment and create health risks for humans and animals. Industry leaders are continually seeking smart, cost-efficient ways to clean up after themselves and minimize their company’s environmental impact.

Now, a collection of scientists and business experts at the University of Minnesota are developing new methods of remediation — the act of removing pollutants from the environment. The researchers are developing software that models how enzymes break down chemicals at the microscopic level to optimize the selection of bacteria that biodegrade those chemicals. Meanwhile, business experts are conducting market research to discover the best ways to apply this new knowledge and learn how it can lead to viable industrial processes and products.

The project is part of the state-funded MnDRIVE Transdisciplinary Research Program, where researchers from different departments work beyond the limits of their disciplines to address complex challenges.

“Predicting how bacteria and chemicals will interact has historically been very challenging,” said Larry Wackett, professor with the U’s BioTechnology Institute and lead researcher on the project. “For the first time, RAPID, a novel software program, will use established biological principles to generate models that show how millions of chemicals can be optimally biodegraded. This idea has enormous potential for the world of bioremediation.”

Scientists have long known that microbes naturally found in water and soil will “eat” certain chemicals. Some companies place water that has been used in industrial processes into man-made ponds or large metal tanks which contain the appropriate type of bacteria to eat the contaminants in the water. But in many cases, the natural biodegradation processes do not work or they work too slowly.

That’s where Wackett and his team come in. Wackett and coworkers are developing an algorithm he calls the “Google of bioremediation.” RAPID, short for Reactive Activity Product IDentification, is designed to allow users, such as chemical developers or companies that produce industrial waste, to type in a particular chemical and quickly receive information on which species of bacteria are likely to break down that chemical. The system stems from the established U of M-designed Biocatalysis/Biodegradation Database, which shows the stages molecules go through as they break down.

Using the bacteria recommended by the system, scientists will be able to develop tests that quickly and accurately detect harmful chemicals, along with treatments that remove those chemicals from water. They will also be able to run a new chemical product through the system to see how what bacteria and enzymes biodegrade it, allowing industry to develop safer, more environmentally friendly products. A chemical company could run a new herbicide through the system, for example, to see if it leaves behind any byproducts that are hazardous to humans or animals.

One example of bacterial remediation that has been successful is a process called “activated sludge,” used in municipal water treatment plants to clean up water that eventually will be processed for drinking. The procedure uses a collection of bacteria to filter out a wide range of impurities, including agricultural runoff, chemicals from personal care products like shampoo and organic matter from plants and animals to make the water safe for consumption. Outside of engineered water treatment systems, bacteria are also helping to retroactively clean up chemicals previously thought innocuous that now threaten to contaminate groundwater.

Finding the Niche for Breakthrough Treatments

While Wackett works on refining the hard science behind the RAPID system, a business team is exploring different approaches to marketing that knowledge.

Tobin Nord, professional director of the Ventures Enterprise at the Carlson School of Management, guides MBA students as they work with departments across the university to figure out how to commercialize new knowledge. Working with the scientific groups headed by Professors Wackett, Alptekin Aksan, Mikael Elias, Carl Rosen and Carrie Wilmot, Nord’s team is pinpointing the remediation solutions most likely to succeed in the market and developing plans to launch technology based on them.

“Even the most innovative technology can’t reach its full potential if there isn’t someone willing to pay for it,” Nord said. “Our goal is to understand where environmental conservation and business needs intersect, and cater to those opportunities with research-based solutions.”

To find the best opportunities for commercialization, Nord’s team is assessing which individual chemicals hold the largest market potential. Their process for evaluating chemicals — both those known and those as-of-yet undiscovered — takes into account how widespread a problem it is, the effectiveness of any treatment methods that already exist and who would be likely to invest in cleaning it up. Each chemical is different; in some cases, an existing method can remove it at a reasonable cost, while in others, current industry practices are expensive and inefficient.

As an alternative, Nord’s team will also examine whether the RAPID technology would be best used as a consulting service for industry. Under that model, companies would come to the university with a specific chemical they want to treat, and the RAPID system would help researchers determine what type of bacteria and treatment system is optimum for their purposes.

Collaborating on Conservation

To take on a problem as complex as chemical contamination, Wackett and Nord are working with researchers from across academic disciplines. Aleptekin Aksan, Ph.D., mechanical engineering professor with the College of Science and Engineering and the BioTechnology Institute, is researching ways to scale up production of silica spheres — a sponge-like type of sand that can trap bacteria in place while contaminated water flows through, helping ensure bacteria evenly remove chemicals from the water.

Also working on the project are Mikael Elias, Ph.D., and Carrie Wilmot, Ph.D., both professors in the Department of Biochemistry, Molecular Biology and Biophysics in the College of Biological Sciences and members of the BioTechnology Institute. Elias is studying how bacteria evolve to eat certain chemicals, while Wilmot is using X-ray crystallography to study the structure and function of the enzymes that bacteria use to break down industrial chemicals.

Meanwhile, Carl Rosen, Ph.D., professor in the Department of Soil, Water and Climate in the U’s College of Food, Agriculture and Natural Resource Sciences, will identify which chemicals are most likely to contaminate the food supply. Through his research, Rosen will help researchers develop products that food producers and consumers alike can use to test food, which can help cut down on foodborne illness and eliminate the need to discard healthy food out of precaution.

“This is the spirit of MnDRIVE,” Wackett said. “We are connecting researchers from across the university and forming new partnerships with industry to tackle a host of real-world problems.”

This project is supported by MnDRIVE, a landmark partnership between the university and the state of Minnesota that aligns areas of university strength with the state’s key and emerging industries to advance new discoveries that address grand challenges.