Scientists might be looking at a strain of bacteria that could potentially clean groundwater that has been contaminated by uranium ore. The particular strain of bacteria comes from the class betaproteobacteria.
The bacteria can “breathe” the uranium found in the groundwater and actually thrive on the uranium ore, which is not a common trait for bacteria.
A recent study by Rutgers University could shed some light on the phenomenon.
The study is being done as part of a program for the United States Department of Energy and is focusing on areas of soil that have become saturated with uranium, which are now unsafe to drink.
Scientists were able to isolate the strain in the lab but are still unsure of exactly how this strain has evolved. Although they are unsure of the details of the evolution, it is possible for bacteria to pass genes onto one another. This particular bacteria now has a specific gene that is allowing it to “breathe” the uranium.
Other methods to treat contaminated groundwater have been deemed too expensive, such as digging up the soil which has been contaminated or treating the ground with extremely harsh chemicals. Scientists hope bacteria will be the answer to these problems.
This bacteria would not only benefit sites where uranium ore was processed to make nuclear weapons but also different countries that have, or are currently experiencing, war that could cause their groundwater to contain higher levels of uranium.
Scientists have been able to sequence the bacteria’s genome in order to provide more information for future research on why it is possible for this particular strain to use uranium as a source to provide life-producing energy. Research continues, and there is more to discover before scientists have a complete understanding.