Bioremediation: Bacteria and fungi FTW

PopTech Science Fellow Shaily Mahendra’s first science experiment began at five years old when her parents commanded that she drink her milk. She negotiated by adding soda into the mix, gradually increasing the soda to milk proportions stopping just short of the point where the milk curdled. Fast forward through college at IIT, Delhi, graduate school at U.C. Berkeley to her present teaching post as an Assistant Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at UCLA.

These days her science experiments focus on bacteria that clean up pollution. Through a process called bioremediation, bacteria and fungi detoxify groundwater and soil contaminated with pollutants such as carcinogens. Ultimately, bioremediation gradually restores the environment to a state of pollution-free healthy regional biodiversity.

Mahendra considers herself equal parts scientist and engineer, asking tough questions and working to solve tough problems. Bioremediation brings together her interests and education in engineering, chemistry, math, biology and nanotechnology in support of her goal to help create clean water and clean energy. "I can be proud when I tell somebody, I discover bacteria that eats pollution. Every time I say those words I feel really good about it."

Though biodegradation is not new, “engineered bioremediation is becoming more favorable now that we have advanced genetic tools to prove that these biological systems are working,”  explained Mahendra. The potential for impact is far-reaching: The method is relatively simple and highly effective in contrast to some conventional technology solutions to remove pollutants. Most physical-chemical treatments are expensive, require more power, water, and raw materials, may accumulate hazardous wastes. Bioremediation minimizes many of these issues.

In fact, Mahendra named one of the bacteria she’s been testing in the lab, Pseudonocardia dioxanivorans. Her team sequenced its genome since it is a bacterium that “makes its living eating pollutants”. Let’s hope that she can continue to raise employment rates for these pollution-eating bacteria and fungi.

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