Millions of Microscopic John Muirs

How microbes may help us clean up our act


| September 22, 2005


In our germaphobic culture, bacteria are often painted as rogue life forms conspiring to lay people low with the flu. But lately, scientists have been turning to these littlest of organisms to solve some of the planet's biggest environmental problems.

For some time, cyanobacteria, a.k.a. blue-green algae, have converted carbon dioxide into oxygen through the process of photosynthesis. Scientific American reports that Ohio University scientist David Bayless hopes to harness such biochemical properties in a scheme to reduce the amount of greenhouse gases emitted by power plants. With funding from the Department of Energy, he's created an experimental 'bioreactor,' inside which thrives a stalwart species of cyanobacterium taken from a hot spring near Yellowstone National Park. Fueled by sunlight, his prototype transforms exhaust and polluted water into pure oxygen and clean water. By 2010, Bayless hopes to have a full-scale bioreactor able to convert the emissions from a 10-megawatt power plant.

In other hardy-bacteria-converting-greenhouse-gas news, Jamais Cascio's essay in WorldChanging floats the idea of mass-producing genetically modified methanotrophs (methane-consuming bacteria) to gobble up the gas as it's released from under the possibly melting Siberian permafrost. If not prevented, such an event could result in billions of tons of methane being released into the atmosphere, exacerbating global warming.

On top of reducing and preventing air pollution, bacteria might have the power to make power. Kara Platoni reports in the East Bay Express that researchers at the Joint Genome Institute (JGI) in Walnut Creek, California, are looking to bacteria as a potential source of cheap, clean, renewable hydrogen fuel -- something that's been a major stumbling block for the success of hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles. In its quest, the JGI has zeroed in on the bacteria living in the hind guts of termites. 'These microbes make termites the most efficient hydrogen producers on the planet,' Platoni explains. 'From a single sheet of printer paper, a termite can produce two liters of the valuable gas.'

Go there >> Blue-Green Acres

Go there too >>Terraforming Earth IV: The Question of Methane