Rutgers University Touts Bacteria That Breathes Uranium

Rutgers University announced Monday that a team of university scientists had isolated a strain of bacteria that “breathes” uranium, which may make it invaluable in decontaminating groundwater at sites like uranium mills where radioactive material was processed for nuclear weapons.

The scientists, doing research for the U.S. Department of Energy, first noted that the uranium at an ore mill in Rifle, Colorado, was harmful even to microorganisms, which prompted a search for active microbial activity in the area. It was also known previously that certain microorganisms that cannot breath oxygen make use of solid iron for respiration and that this has decreased the amount of uranium in groundwater. But scientists had not previously proved that the bacteria were, in fact, “inhaling the uranium,” the university said in a statement.

Scientists know little about how these organisms behave in the environment. But Lee Kerkhof, a professor of marine and coastal sciences in the School of Environmental and Biological Sciences, said that he is optimistic the discovery can have beneficial uses. “There is depleted uranium in a lot of armor-piercing munitions, so places like the Middle East that are experiencing war could be exposed to high levels of uranium in groundwater,” he said.

 “After the newly discovered bacteria interact with uranium compounds in water, the uranium becomes immobile. It is no longer dissolved in the groundwater and therefore can’t contaminate drinking water brought to the surface,” Kerkhof said in a statement.

The discovery is described in detail in Public Library of Science One from April 13, 2015. The bacterium that breathes uranium comes from a common strain of bacteria known as betaproteobacteria.

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  • Anonymous

    Cool, and then something eats the bacteria and it goes into the food chain.

    Sheesh, its better just bouncing around than in the food chain.