Environment Will Be Protected by “Iron Man”

by Vrinda Jain

Environment Will Be Protected by “Iron Man”

January 11, 2021

MSU researchers demonstrate how microbes could fight against the toxic metals; opens the door for recycling and restoration of applications and the environment.

When Professor Gemma Reguera of Michigan State University first suggested her new research project to the National Science Foundation, a grant reviewer replied that the proposal was not “environmentally relevant.” As other reviewers and the programme manager did not express this sentiment, NSF funded the proposal.

Microbes' Behaviour in Cobalt-rich Atmosphere

Reguera’s team deals with bacteria known as Geobacter found in soil and sediment. The team researched what happened to the bacteria when they came across cobalt in its new project. Cobalt is a desirable but increasingly scarce metal that is used in electric vehicle batteries and spacecraft alloys. It is also extremely poisonous to living organisms, including bacteria and humans.

Reguera explains that the team believed that Geobacter could avoid that fate. These bacteria are a bunch of sturdy ones. They can block uranium pollutants from entering groundwater, and by pulling energy from iron oxide-containing minerals, they can fuel themselves.

Scientists know very little about how microbes behave in the cobalt atmosphere, but many scientists felt the toxic metal might be too much for the microbes. However, Reguera and her team questioned that thinking and found Geobacter to be powerful “miners,” of cobalt, extracting the metal from rust without letting it enter and destroy their cells.

PlantMicrobiologyClass-MicroBiology-scoolbuzz
The Plant Microbiology Lab offers students an opportunity to gain valuable knowledge in basic microbiology skills

How Will this Help the Environment?

Reguera sees this discovery as concrete evidence that opens the door to a variety of innovative possibilities. For instance, Geobacter could form the basis of new biotechnology designed to recover and recycle cobalt from lithium-ion batteries, reducing the nation’s reliance on foreign cobalt mines.

It also allows researchers to study Geobacter to absorb other harmful metals for the bacteria that were previously considered to be the death of the bacteria. Reguera is especially interested in seeing whether Geobacter could help clean up cadmium, a metal used in industrial waste that affects the most vulnerable communities in America disproportionately.

geobacter-cell-with-cobalt-minerals-scoolbuzz
This Geobacter cell -- which looks a bit like a gray peanut in this microscope image -- is speckled with a dark coating of cobalt minerals that would be toxic to many organisms.

Opportunity in Discovery

Reguera believes that her research is not only a discovery into an opportunity, but also it is a note to be creative and not to limit the potentialities. She says “It is a freedom to explore and to search constantly. We have textbook theories about what microbes can and should do, but life is distinct and colourful. There are other processes out there waiting to be discovered.”

This work was funded by the Geobiology and Low-Temperature Geochemistry Program of the NSF and a Hatch project grant from the National Institute of Food and Agriculture of the United States Department of Agriculture.

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