Millions of Microscopic John Muirs

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

Related Links:

Related Links from the Utne
Archive:

Comments? Story tips?
Write a letter to the editor

Like this? Want more?Subscribe to Utne
magazine

UTNE
UTNE
In-depth coverage of eye-opening issues that affect your life.