Will Microbes Clean our Water?

A recent publication in Environmental Science & Technology and subsequent review on Phys.org gave a lot of promise for the technology of using microbes to clean up waterways. The study suggested that harnessing microbes is an environmentally sustainable solution to breaking down pollutants in water.

I think ‘breakthrough’ is a bit strong of an accolade for this study. Bioremediation is not a new understanding, but perhaps the policies surrounding it are. For example, certain species of microbes flourished during the deepwater horizon oil spill because they harnessed the hydrocarbons in the oil as fuel. We did little to control this natural bioremediation; organic pollutants to us are simply macro-nutrients to microbes that will thrive when their environmental conditions are ideal.

So if these microbes naturally exist and we can now identify them, how much leeway will legislation allow us to alter natural microbial communities for the purpose of more efficient bioremediation? I can’t imagine too many folks will be on board with dumping a tank of some microbial cocktail into our storm drains and rivers. How would this idea overlap with invasive species legislation? Will we have cane toad situation on our hands? Even in controlled systems like manure anaerobic digesters, policies are struggling to create standards for the ins and outs these bioremediation tanks. I argue that the rate-limiting step into harnessing microbes for to clean up our water is not on the microbes, it is on government.

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Katherine Dahlhausen

Katie Dahlhausen is a PhD student in Jonathan Eisen’s lab and is interested in the biogeography and mechanisms of antibiotic resistance. Find out more at her Twitter feed .