A Blessing to Commerce: Poison-breathing Bacteria

By on February 2, 2014
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Humans have a love-hate relationship with bacteria, some being a bane to our existence and others a blessing for our commercial pursuits. Researchers at the University of Georgia have discovered a perplexing bacterial species that essentially breathes toxic substances and converts them into a commercially-useful compound, and the species’ use may eventually extend to preserving the environment.

Near Yosemite National Park, in the heart of California, is a salty lake that nourishes this peculiar species. Breathing arsenic and other toxic metals, like antimony, selenium, and tellurium, this bacterium can convert antimony into antimony trioxide (or ATO), a compound widely used for industrial purposes. In 2010, worldwide industry consumed 120,000 tons of ATO, which, unlike antimony, is not particularly toxic and does not cause skin irritation. From flame retardants of common household items and LEDs to solar cells and vulcanized rubber, antimony trioxide has a wide range of applications. However, its production typically releases harmful byproducts and requires expensive equipment. The costs of changing antimony ore to ATO add up.

“We tested the crystals we made alongside commercially available products that are 99 percent pure, and ours is either of identical or superior quality,” said distinguished research professor of marine sciences at UGA James Hollibaugh.

This bacterium produces antimony trioxide in a crystalline form, which can be used as a substitute for synthetically produced antimony trioxide. The authors of the study hope that these bacteria can be farmed in large cultures. The cultures could be nourished with oxidized antimony to produce antimony trioxide in a self-sustaining manner. The potential uses for this bacterium is promising, but while their application for a patent is processing for this discovery, the researchers wish to investigate further into this bacteria’s properties and ramifications of its use before it is widely utilized. They hope to investigate how the bacterium reacts to several metals in an environment.

Besides use in the commercial sector, these bacteria may also be used to ameliorate pollution in waste waters, as they lull toxic chemicals away from human and animal consumption. For instance, antimony toxicity can cause gastrointestinal problems in humans, as well as respiratory problems, and selenium toxicity can also lead to gastrointestinal problems, neurological symptoms, and even tremors and heart attacks. This species has additional enzymes that can process selenium and tellurium or can recover some other valuable substances. So, using these bacteria as filters will save valuable resources when trying to preserve the ecosystem—if subsequent testing works out.

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About Rhiana Simon

Neuroscience student. Aspiring researcher, writer, and avid insect collector.
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